Remembering and Introducing…

With January now gone and February just begun, it’s time to farewell Peter Steele and introduce our new poet for the month. Shortly after Father Steele’s death in 2012 I wrote an essay in memory of him, and, although I have read much more of his poetry since then and have come to appreciate it more, it still seems a fitting conclusion to our month of looking at his work here at The Consolations of Writing. So here it is, for those who did not read it at the time.

Also, it’s time for another poet – our second last, in fact. It’s hard to believe that my 12 Poets Project is nearly finished! This month’s poet is something of an Australian literary icon – Les Murray, most famous perhaps for his dorky bushman hat and the preamble he wrote for the Australian Constitution. But he is also a wonderful poet and I look forward to celebrating his work, and the way that his faith informs it, throughout February.

Morning Song (After Peter Steele’s “An Ordinary Evening In Kew”)

Time for my last poem for Peter Steele, this one based on his simple and delicate “An Ordinary Evening in Kew”. Less theological than the other poems I have chosen, this one is a wonderful tribute to the simple beauties of God’s gift of life.

Morning Song (After "An Ordinary Evening in Kew")

The Kensington street heats up for public holiday and I
Race the heat down hills, past flats and parklands, through
The lessening leaves that lined last week’s pavement.
Autumn yawns as summer dawns again, and slow the street
Awakes to greet the gift of sunrise without work.
In my ears the swoop of violins, and heartbeat
Growing with each downwards leap. My shins, uncertain,
Hold together for the plummet, though this is rest
Nonetheless: bodies, finite, all the same can sing
And defy the grave, though ever moving to it.
Birds’ music, poetry in movement: common grace
A sign that more than this may soon be allowed.
Welcome, street, and gambol now beside me,
Gravity negating, the dance a dreaming joy.

An Ordinary Evening in Kew - Peter Steele

On the one hand, Dante, and in the other pocket
The man who took his mind and left New Haven
For parts unknown. What were they up to,
The stoutly suited broker of our fortunes,
The burning Florentine? Watching the rain
Descend as if it chose to, giving vent
To laws at once of gravity and mercy,
I'm brought to book by earth's imagination,
The bearing of the trees, exfoliation
Of these most rambling streets, the rise of lights
Captive upon their poles and in my eyes.
Come in, you two: see if you'll make a lodging
An hour at least with the rest who wait inside,
Heads full of dreaming, bodies compelled by time.

(From Peter Steele, White Knight With Beebox: New and Selected Poems, 
John Leonard Press, 2008)


Yesterday I posted my own poem written in response to Peter Steele’s heartbreaking “Crux”. Here, as an additional kind of tribute to my old teacher, is a musical setting of the poem that I wrote and recorded. Steele’s words, from his liturgical sequence, “A Season in Retreat”, are included below for you to read as you listen.

Crux (From Peter Steele, “A Season in Retreat”, Marching on Paradise, 1984)
                        Seeing you go
Where the dead are bound, and having no resource
To twist those timbers out of their lethal course,
            I want at least to know

                        What I can say
Now that the boasts have blown away and even
The cursing has grown faint, while the pall of heaven
            Abolishes the day.

                        I was never wise
In word or silence, never understood
The killer in my members, thought of good
            As what one might devise

                        From scraps of evil.
How can I learn a way for me or mine
To stand beside you? Vinegar, not wine,
            Is all we give you still.

                        Among the dice
And the dirt, with more of shame than love to show,
All that will come to heart is ‘Do not go
            Alone to Paradise.’

What He Meant (After Peter Steele’s “Crux”)

The third poem written in response to Peter Steele comes from his very moving work, “Crux”, possibly one of his best poems. You can read the original poem here. Like Steele’s poem, mine is written from the perspective of one of Jesus’ followers immediately after His death, and ponders how Jesus’ words may have seemed at that moment.

What He Meant (After "Crux")

                 Where you must go,
     We cannot follow, of course. That is clear,
The look of complete Elsewhere on your face, the sheer
         Desolation of the show

                 Says it all. You said
      As much quite clearly as we dipped herbs and fought
Amongst ourselves, with questions of greatness, retorts
           Against your broken grace.

                 Sponges dipped in wine
      Recall the bread, the cup, and yet the scene,
So far removed from upper rooms, the shattered screen
           Fractures every line

                  We drew in shifting sand.
       Arms ripped out to the side, you know it all.
Your crown, your spear, your heraldry, the scrawl
           Above your throne

                 Hailing you king –
       Such truth, shrouded in irony – demands we wait,
Until the veil’s finally gone. Sentries at the gate,
           The mourners sing.

Childhood (After Peter Steele’s “Star Man”)

For those who follow the church calendar, we are now in the season of Epiphany, the brief time between Christmas and Lent. Peter Steele’s cycle of poems “Rounding a Year”, deals nicely with this season, especially the strange in-between period where Jesus has been born but is not yet approaching the Cross. I’ve used today’s poem, a response to part of Steele’s work, to reflect on this stage of Jesus’ life.

Childhood (After "Star Man")

Strange as it must have been to grow as a child
   in the world which was his child, he grew,
we're told, and "became strong", "filled with wisdom":
   street-wise, perhaps, the way a kid has to be,
with all of these Romans around, yet wise also
   about the lines and shades of truth,
the textures of the soul, the contours of the earth,
   wise to know a true word when spoken,
being himself the Word. The Magi knew
   true wisdom when they saw it, but Herod
      would stumble on wisdom like a rock.
Yes, his father taught him which nail to use,
   how to use this chisel to shape this space,
how to manipulate the sternness of stone -
   yet those lessons were scarcely needed,
symbols, perhaps, of how low he had come,
   that he should take advice from a man
whom he himself had formed and shaped like clay.
   If he grew in wisdom and knowledge, perhaps
it was more like a waking than a learning - that
   moment of remembrance after a dream,
      the knowing assertion of light into a tomb.

Star Man - Peter Steele

What did they tell him about the early days?
   The infants taken out, the scramble
across a border, another sojourn in Egypt,
   the being strangers in a strange land,
anxiety as something gnawed like bread -
   was that the story? And what became
of all the star-talk they'd heard from camel drivers
  and their curious masters, who fished in bags
for the dulled flaming of gold, for smoky gum,
  for myrrh to mask mortality, while
     the child dozed as he needed?

Grown, a day's work done, the tools consigned
  to peace and shavings, he'd stroll and gaze
at the many nail-heads fixing a darkened fabric,
  the well-made world above him. And knew
as little as that vast array of siblings,
  hacks and drudges, who comb us all
towards coherence. Thumbs in his belt, he watched,
  but not to see the spill of fires
from whose old dust we're beckoned out to be,
  much less to think, as some would say,
     that in him all was made.

(From Peter Steele, The Gossip and the Wine, 2010, John Leonard Press)

Epiphany (After Peter Steele’s “Madonna and Child”)

8730##S.jpg.248x605_q85Tomorrow is Epiphany Sunday, and so I’ve chosen to begin my month of looking at Peter Steele’s poetry with this response to his poem “Madonna and Child”. Steele’s poem is an ekphrastic poem, meaning that it has come “out of” another art work, Justin O’Brien’s intriguing “Madonna and Child” (image from I’ve followed Steele’s Shakespearean sonnet structure and have responded myself to the painting.

But more important than any of these works is the truth of Epiphany, the revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. No art-work or poem can do justice to this truth.

Epiphany (After “Madonna and Child”)

It’s not His face that makes His glory known,
And yet we do our best. See how refined,
Complete He is: His mother stern, enthroned,
Her gaze towards us, His towards the side,
His right hand raised, as though to warn us how
The scars will find their way into His palm.
Behind them: grey squares and diamonds, no glow,
Only a crimson-tinted chair. How calm
He stands upon His mother’s knees, how vacant
Her gaze! If swords will pierce through souls, she seems
To take it well, her stoic eyes aslant,
Almost – it looks – on brink of hazy dreams.
Yet He appears to stare straight at the Tree,
The unseen throne of this epiphany.

Madonna and Child - Peter Steele

He might have just come from the barber, unless
She keeps razor and scissors bright in a jar
To smarten him up on Fridays. There's finesse
In the gowns' fall, the boy's bearing, the scar
That pinks each hand and foot, the woman's gaze
Towards you and beyond, the nailed-up throne
To house the poet's 'heaven in paraphrase',
The haunting grown the stranger, being sown.
And here's the thing: among those out to see,
Young as they are, what he and she can tell
Of all time's blessings and its piracy,
The tolling or the spiring of a bell,
Guess as they do at the soured wine and the lance,
The feet are poised forever towards a dance.

(From Peter Steele, White Knight with Beebox: New and 
Selected Poems, John Leonard Press, 2008)

12 Poets #10: Peter Steele

Fr-Steele_300Well, the new year is here and it is time for a new poet. This month is very personally significant for me. Peter Steel SJ was an Australian poet and academic who taught me poetry in my fourth year of Literature at the University of Melbourne and had a deep influence upon my love of poetry. It is a great joy for me to share some of his poetry and my responses to it with you all this month.