The Fullness of Reality


review by Steve Evans





Robert Gray
Duffy & Snellgrove 2002
AU$22.00 Pb
ISBN 1 876631 22 8


According to the cover of Afterimages, Kevin Hart acclaims Gray the 'greatest English-speaking poet of the natural world now writing'. Whether one agrees with the sweep of that statement or not, there is no argument that the natural world is Gray's hallmark territory, or that he has been hailed as one of the country's pre-eminent poets. Does Afterimages maintain the reputation?

Gray's work has consistently been characterised by both gentle philosophising and a very visual embrace of the natural world since his first volume of work appeared in the early 1970s. The appearance of a further collection raised the question whether Gray would continue to hone his craft in what had become comfortable terrain or strike out for something new. There is 'new' in Afterimages and it mainly takes the form of a high proportion of longer poems.

Mention should be made first of the inclusion of several line drawings by the author. Gray's sketches are economical; they make interesting companions to the poems. His landscapes offer a tilting perspective, often a view over rises or down a slope. They seem to be concerned with seeing things obliquely, perhaps discovering newness in a fresh angle. The portraits on the other hand are flat and more direct, recording impassive faces. But what of the poems?

Gray has always varied form, mostly through playing with line length, and occasionally trying a prose poem. His 'Thomas Hardy' is a sterling example of controlled structure here, and 'Fourteen Poems' presents a series of short pieces for which Gray is renowned. He has a keen eye for seeing the world in an atom, and the potential for energy in stillness, such as:

Late afternoon sun
found in the back of the shed.
cornered and still.

('Fourteen Poems' 31)

In 'A Bowl of Pears', Gray shows an acuteness of observation and freshness of image that inform much of his previous writing: 'the snow-clean juice with a slight crunch that is sweet' (50). In 'Homage to the Painters', however, he seems to be merely practising his scales. In seven groups of lines, each comprising two couplets, Gray furnishes the reader with simple colour-based images. The result is lacklustre, and oddly distancing, though such a minimalist style may eventually produce something more satisfying:

a sulphur-coloured hill
a burnt orange triangle

a red tractor
a long plume of gulls

(Homage to the Painters' 62)

Gray's painterly eye is better represented in the longish 'Home Run' where there appears, 'spreading through acres of grass, a seemingly broken water / coloured like the water / that we washed our brushes in at school' (73). This is Gray at his most precise, and there are many other satisfying instances.

But now to that question of length. Afterimages departs from Gray's previous work in that five of the 25 poems run for between five and 10 pages, and a further four are prose poems. This also signals a shift towards a more conversational voice; one that seems deliberately less concerned with creating vivid imagery. That is not to suggest that the words are less carefully weighed, of course, but a different effect is achieved. The subtle tension that commonly marks Gray's smaller pieces is not as evident in some of these larger works and their relative looseness is not yet as successful.

A case in point is the longest poem, the first verse of which sets up a meditation that extends over more than eight pages:

Things, Berkeley says, are the language of God,
this world that we know is really His thoughts -
which Hume remarked brings us no conviction,
but to me it is almost justified,
for things that are worthy of such existence,
of ultimate stature. It often seems
I am listening to them. What could it mean,
that intuition? I think the appeal
is their candour, it's the lack of concern
at being so vulnerable. So we sense
they are present entire. One feels these things
that step through the days with us have the fullness,
in each occasion, of reality.

('The Drift of Things' 52)

There is a circular logic in the premise here and the anthropomorphy that renders objects sentient still niggles, despite allowance for poetic licence. Though 'The Drift of Things' tends towards polemics and didacticism, it is a poem that rewards re-reading. Readers who infer from its relaxed tone and sheer length that its message is easily gleaned, may not give it that opportunity, however. Sadly, another big work, 'The Dying Light', sags in its length. A narrator's (Gray's?) homage to his mother, it begs a tidier narrative, especially because it works a commonly mined seam.

The prose poem, 'Flemington Races', is a list of observations that might well have dwindled to nothing much except for the apposite close in which:

The horse has just been struck, and has won by
a nose, which it doesn't understand; it simply waits, head lifted, patient,
unmoved, and it has all of the dignity that is here.

('Flemington Races' 49)

There is detail to savour in another prose piece, 'Damp Evening' , where 'the ferry is slow and squarely-built, and is as tightly packed with light as a truck with bales of hay' (29). This loving attention to the physical world and especially to a sense of its sacredness is manifest in 'Chameleon'. The poem begins with listening to rain in the countryside at night and emerges, with the narrator, into first light. It ends:

It is the lightning from the start of time.
All of these things that we see must be the metamorphoses
of such fire. One configuration burns
and becomes another, and will burn. That light
is an interweaving, with nothing
beneath it. Everything arises from the foam
of light, and keeps the nature
of flame, and makes its own abyss,
and the light in itself is our blessedness.

('Chameleon' 12-13)

Gray's poetry often appeals to arguments based around matter's unity being made clear in opposition, in dependent dualities such as light and dark, etc. 'Chameleon' is one of his most fluid examples. Deft use of sound helps to achieve a seamless transition from a description of the world as object to the point where it is beheld as Maya, or play.

And speaking of fluidity, it is images of water that permeate Afterimages. There is still Gray's abiding concern with light, as indicated above, but water glistens throughout the collection - in gardens, on roofs, on floors, in paddocks, in streets, as sea, and so on. True, there is seldom water without light, but the volume is awash (pun intended) with Gray's keen imagery of the latter. That it never drowns the poems is testament to Gray's mastery.

Afterimages presents a poet still critically concerned with the intertwining of the physical and the spiritual. It is clear that the longer pieces in the collection are a mixed bag, needing more refinement. Shorter poems in the collection argue eloquently for Gray's continued focus on them if for no other reason than that they are still more accomplished, but there may be good results to come in future from his pushing into new areas. In the meantime, there is plenty of material in Afterimages to gratify both existing fans and those recently discovering Robert Gray's poetry.


Steve Evans teaches literature and writing at Flinders University in South Australia. His sixth book, Luminous Fruit, was released in July 2003.


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Vol 7 No 2 October 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady