TEXT review

The heavenly and the human

review by L’aine Gillespie


Peter Steele
The Gossip and the Wine
John Leonard Press, Melbourne 2010
ISBN 9780980852301
Pb 65pp AUD24.95


DH Lawrence wrote in his essay, ‘Chaos in Poetry’ (1967): 

The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world.

Poetry is, in one sense, a new expression or view of something old or previously known that brings attention to an uncommon knowledge or point of view, or sheds light on the familiar. Peter Steele has captured the essence of poetry in this sense in his collection of poems titled The Gossip and the Wine and cleverly told a new version of an old story. This collection tells the Gospel stories from a different perspective: instead of highlighting a man of miracles, it relates a story of human and divine elements in a somewhat storm-tossed world. Steele’s journey amongst these elements turns the biblical stories into a refreshing portrayal of men and God.

Throughout my reading of Peter Steele’s work I was reminded of the frailty of human existence, the faith and the hope for something greater than ourselves, and the traces of the existence of an almighty God which that human faith and hope rests upon. The ‘gossip’ is apparent in the role of human participation while the ‘wine’ is reminiscent of the divine dimension. Steele sets up the human element in the first two lines of the first the poem, ‘Advent’:

All my life I’ve been at the school of yearning
where masters come and go. (1)

Yearning is a psychological state that either drives an individual forward in life or becomes an unsatisfied longing. Either way it is an unavoidable weight that accompanies the state of being human. Steele draws attention to these human strengths and weaknesses immediately in this first poem. As the collection progresses, Steele attempts to offer a reconciliation of sorts between the human and heavenly dimensions in some of the poems, while others place them worlds apart. In his poetic method of reasoning he draws on the concept of spiritual belief and where it rests in human experiences. Throughout, Steele weighs the human and heavenly against each other as he revisits various events that are based on biblical stories.

Some of the poems journey in and out of time; some, such as ‘Contemplation with Ashes’(10), are positioned within particular events. Yet others, such as ‘Water Man’ (9), suggest the personal point of view that the water man, or Jesus the hero of the Gospels, may have had regarding various events and experiences.

‘Water Man’ takes a different slant on the story of Jesus and the disciplines in a boat on stormy seas. Rather than presenting the miraculous calming of the storm, Steele brings the almighty being to a human level:

Yes there was dreaming though he could not say
how long it lasted. He found himself
now in familiar waters, coasting the lake
his friends would fish for a living, now
in the open sea, possessed like herring or dolphin
by unbiddable currents... (9)

The water man wakes in the midst of the storm but his attention focuses on the commotion of sea life.  In the biblical version Jesus turned to his fearful friends in the storm-tossed boat and said, “Oh ye of little faith...” then turned away and commanded the seas to be still. But in Steele’s version the water man, in his waking state, takes in the miracle of life tossed in the ‘unbiddable currents’ and says:

‘You never enjoy the world aright till the sea
itself floweth in veins.’ He made
the most of the dreamtime, still uncertain when
it must give way to showtime... (9)

‘Water Man’ shows the biblical hero as a man who marvels at life in the friction and the rise to ‘showtime’ which I assume, in this instance, to be the miraculous calming of the sea. Having said that, it also draws to mind the ultimate ‘showtime’ of the crucifixion. The poem then transports the reader to Jordan, the river where, as the biblical story tells us, Jesus was being baptised by John when a voice from heaven claimed him to be the son of God. Steele refers to this event as ‘water blessing him on his way’.

There is something of a tongue-in-cheek flavour entwined amongst the abstract and the common elements of human and heavenly representations in this collection. Steele has counter-balanced one against the other in order to re-present the Gospel stories. He embraces the yearning and the hope of humanity and accesses the ambiguity of the divine. Some poems are referenced by particular scriptures implying a specific story or person that Steele has re-presented and wants the reader’s attention drawn to. In following his lead in the poems, you take a journey that leaves you questioning these biblical stories and the religious faith they were intended to inspire.

Steele uses historical figures and makes other historical references to convey his point. After references to Homer and Dante, the last four verses of the poem ‘Advent’ turn to the life of George Herbert, seventeenth-century priest and poet, a man not afraid to argue ‘it out with God’, and who ‘went on hoping, as the lungs declined’. Herbert, a well-worn and well-liked man, was ‘a troubled soul’ and ‘brave spirited’. Disillusioned by worldly ambition, he eventually found solace in the priesthood. Steele refers to Herbert, a saintly man, in other poems such as ‘Trees’ and ‘Reverie in Lygon Street’ (17) as though he were proof of the religious claims Steele makes.

The poems ‘Simon’ (52)and ‘Peter’ (47) are delivered from the ordinary by scriptural events that connect these characters to the divine being or plan. Introducing these poems with scripture has an impact on their combination of creativity and creation: the scriptural references highlight the context of the poem which then tones down the ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’ controversy that has surrounded the bible for centuries, and will no doubt continue to do so. While consciously recognising two versions of the story, one of human creativity and the other of divine creativity, we see that truth or belief is not enough and has no meaning unless faith shows us another world. Steele makes the scriptural and poetical come together to create reflections on each other in this collection, showing us other worlds contained within the Gospel stories.

Steele brings the humanity of the bible characters to the forefront and makes them realistic. His poems make Jesus, the biblical icon, a ‘real’ person, part of a human existence rather than just a miracle man. The poet does not dismiss anything that suggests the power of the imagination, or creation. He states his belief in God in ‘Reverie in Lygon Street’:

Believing Him here, as in my folly I do,
the once and risen mortal, prompts me
to ask about the old days.

The Gossip and the Wine reflects the priest-like task of the poet that Robin Skelton refers to in The Poet’s Calling (1975). In this book Skelton suggests that a poet believes in an ability to create awareness and heal the misconceptions of humanity. In my opinion, Steele attempts to reconfigure the Gospel stories and draw attention to the idea that perhaps there is some reality in them, perhaps these stories were about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I think Steele has, once again, delivered a poetical masterpiece that, from a Christian viewpoint, enhances the Gospel stories and the divine promises of grace as a panacea for the wretchedness of human nature in a way that is not overly religious or pious but simple and real.

The Gossip and the Wine unveils the mystical and religious characters of the Gospel stories in a way that invokes the question: Who was that man?



L’aine Gillespie has recently completed a PhD at Southern Cross University. While focusing her research on the relationship between poetry and philosophy, she has also completed a collection of poems titled ‘Thirty Odd Years Ago’ that focuses on the beach and drug culture of the Gold Coast in the 1970s.


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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy