Thursday, 31 January 2013

Poetry: “a line of words that say it like no other”


This essay appears in the February 2013 issue (no. 511) of The Melbourne Anglican (TMA), page 18

Philip Harvey

When we read the opening poem in the Bible we find ourselves in the midst of praise for God and Creation. This is known as being dropped in at the deep end. Genesis 1 uses repetition to put in our mouths the strong reminder that Creation is good. I find it especially helpful to be told that, like God, we need to take a rest from our labours, if we are to survive at all. The Seven Days is not intended as scientific proof and it is a mistake to read it thus. All the science in the world does not disprove this poem, in fact the poem helps us appreciate science’s explanations about the Cosmos.

Asking what a poem means is not the point. The main question is, why was it written? That is the best place to start when reading a poem. It's the question people should ask when they read Genesis 1, or the Prophets with their magnificent proclamations of justice.  And then, what about the Sermon on the Mount? What it means is an important question, but more so, where is it coming from? Spirituality is about where we were, are and will be.

Despite denials from the postmodern horizon, the Bible remains one of the major sources of English poetry. Psalms is called a collection of the full range of human experience, which may be, though it is more accurate to say an amazing range of human ways of talking to God. Indeed, our prayer life itself draws on the poetic of Psalms as example and guide. “Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord” is a place we must be ready for, or have been. Anytime we may find ourselves “glad when they said unto me let us go into the house of the Lord.” The spiritual life can be explained in such lines, whole traditions of poetry and thought can be sourced there.

Our human need to say things clearly, directly and truthfully places a high expectation on language to do a lot with a little. This is what we want poetry to do, even if it’s not always the result. Obvious and ordinary is okay, every bit helps, but language that gets to the tangle of our experience, to the intrinsic wonder of the world, to the heart of existence has to be more than okay. We want to go where poetry is at work. Just like the questions we keep asking on the spiritual quest.

Every period of Christian history is rich in parables, sayings, hymns and poems. The Celtic version of the Gospel is a favourite of mine, with its awesome acclamation of Trinity known as Patrick’s Breastplate. In medieval Ireland the poets held special status because they were keepers of the law. I take this to mean they kept the memory of the law, but also that they explained from experience the complexity of life. Poets today reserve this second function, though it’s a relief to know they are not left alone to formulate our laws. Making sense of complexity, offering means for identifying our spiritual development, is a business that modern poets have in common. Denise Levertov says “To understand her you must imagine”, she being Julian of Norwich, but also Wisdom itself.

In Christian tradition any spirituality makes account of “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Les Murray says of the Passion that “Ever afterwards, the accumulation / of freedom would end in this man.” Poets acclaim Christ, they also speak to Christ. George Herbert calls him “Quick-eyed Love”. “You rise up and say goodbye to no-one” sings Bob Dylan in ‘Jokerman’.

In a world where the movie is major and the internet interminable, poetry may seem outmoded for those not open to its possibilities. Yet there is not a person alive who has not been stopped by a line of words that say it like no other, or been in a public place, especially places of worship, where certain lines are the only thing that will do, the only way to say it. Poetry is not a foreign field.

Today there are two main ways of enjoying poetry and learning from it, both of them valid for the spiritual life. The first and more common way is by quiet reading. This can in turn lead to prayer. When reading a very good poem at depth we use the same focus and connection as in lectio divina. 

The second way is the spoken word. Where I work at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, poetry seminars are a way of hearing the human voice direct. This is a need in our world of saturation images and artificial sounds: we want the sound of living people. I have given readings of John Donne (“Reason is our soul’s left hand, Faith her right / By these we reach divinity”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Glory be to God for dappled things”) and others where hearing the immediacy of the words is essential to learning their spiritual import. The Institute for Spiritual Studies at Eastern Hill is another venue where poetry reading opens up the lived experience of faith. Attendees at a seminar there on W.H. Auden met his quirky line “Let your last thinks all be thanks”, a place of Christian beatitude that a poet can say and where we all wish to be.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Liddell and Scott down the Rabbit Hole

Philip Harvey

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Students of New Testament Greek know that time is of the essence.

At lunch break during Greek Summer School one of them is reclining on the grass.

She looks up to see rushing past a Rabbit in tailored waistcoat and checking his fob watch.

More unusual things have been seen at university, but all the same it’s a lesson.

Soon she will have to follow her interests and return to class.

Fortunately she is sensible and well-educated, which means she uses devices.

One of them is the Liddell & Scott 9th edition on Kindle (2007).

Sometimes when she goes into L&S it’s like falling down a well at incredible speed.

Other times it’s like drinking something that makes her feel very big, or very small.

Other times though she comes up against utterly irrational situations.

At a tea party a March Hare says that his L&S is totally corrupted and unusable.

A Dormouse says he cannot even download his L&S, but then he’s always falling asleep.

Mine has never worked, announces a Hatter, let’s change the subject!

Her own copy isn’t all bad, but it has trouble reading inflected words.

That’s inflected, not infected, mutters a trippy Caterpillar who seems able to read her mind.

Everything the same is slightly different from the way it was before, the Caterpillar adds, enigmatically.

Where am I now anyway? she thinks to herself.

In fact she finds that about 70% of searches on her L&S do not return a hit.

“Low ratios are because Greek texts are not consistent when it comes to how unicode for polytonic Greek is applied.”

Who is that? she thinks, looking around.

“A unicode text can be encoded using composing diacritics, or precomposed diacritics,” comes a second voice. “The consensus today favours precomposed diacritics but within this subset, due to faulty duplication, we again have two choices. Vowels can be represented using acute or tonos with the consensus being in favour of the tonos. Most computer operating can disambiguate these variations but devices like the Kindle and Android based systems do not.”


It is a Turtle talking to a Gryphon.

Everything is very strange today, she thinks. Let’s take a reality check with Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.

“Digitization, markup and correction of L&S proved to be far more time consuming and demanding from a scholarly point of view than we anticipated, hence the entire project took five years to complete. The effort began by extracting identifiable sections of the text, such as headwords and meanings, that we could proofread using TLG correction software or by collating multiple digital versions. This approach was helpful but not entirely effective. Ultimately, the bulk of editing required a human eye. The final project contains a number of enhancements compared to the printed version. A number of lower case or ambiguous entries have been converted to upper case and a large number of typographical errors have been corrected. Sub-entries in the printed edition marked with hyphens, have been expanded and treated as headwords. Greek words (both headwords and Greek inside entries), and English definitions can be searched and L&S citations are linked to the TLG updated editions (when possible).”

Something of a mouthful and her eye keeps returning to the sentence:

Ultimately, the bulk of editing required a human eye.  

Say what?

The words say what I want them to mean, neither more nor less, declares a large Egg sitting on a Wall.

This whole business is getting right out of hand and reminds her of something her clergyman father once said:

“Of the making of e-book readers there is no end. And to get them all to do what you want them to do is a vexation of the spirit.”

Being sensible and well-educated, not to mention polite, she decides for the moment to be off with its headwords.

She is aware that with an original, if hefty, copy of the L&S book itself in front of her, the questions about the words of great price will be answered in two minutes.

Where to find one?

Abebooks has some, U$94.63 from a place in Bonn, U$163.12 at Cotswold Internet Books.

While Amazon spruiks the Kindle with the following Notes:

“1. An alphabetical index is not provided as the Lexicon has over 800,000 headwords. 2. The preface, list of abbreviations and bibliography have been removed to bring the file size within the Kindle eBook limit of 50MB.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

The fact that an e-book has a word limit seems altogether the most extraordinary thing to the budding Greek scholar.

It seems to somehow or other she knows not why contradict the thought that her device has limitless space.

Perhaps it is an urban myth, she thinks to herself.

Such is her muddle, she has even split an infinitive.

But no sooner has she had these unusual thoughts than she finds herself awake on the grass by the riverbank.

How glad she is that she has been to Wonderland, and not to a picnic at Hanging Rock.

The last thing she needs is to be sucked up into the vortex.

Offbeat Earth Alice Pop-Up Book

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Bookless Libraries

Philip Harvey
News this month of the first bookless public library will come as little surprise to many in the public system, or beyond. That this bookless library is situated in the Lone Star State brings to mind the well-worn slogan ‘Nowhere but Texas’. The first 100% digital public library system in the United States is the inspiration, not of a librarian, but of a lawyer, County Judge Nelson Wolff, who says he was inspired to create a digitally native library while reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

Judge Wolff says the library will look like an Apple Store, though the architect’s drawing at our disposal reminds me more of an old-fashioned internet café. Why should we be surprised that the ad hoc internet cafés of ten years ago have become models for branches of public libraries? If your main experience of knowledge retrieval is an internet café, is it not obvious that’s the way to go for libraries? This is fine, even if it is the perspective of a tech-head, not a librarian. Some would say that a bookless library is an inevitable outcome of the digital world. Some of us would say that the whole web world we now inhabit is a bookless library, that it happened ten or twenty years ago.

A disturbing trend in the public system in Australia today is the downgrading of available shelf book titles, both in quality and variety. There is even an attitude amongst some library planners that a public library can be neatly divided into two sections: fiction and non-fiction. If user demand for the latest fiction drives decision-making, then non-fiction, and even older forms of fiction, will suffer in acquisitions. Translate this thinking to the e-book world of downloads in an all-digital library and we soon have a scenario where libraries are failing their constituencies by not giving the borrowers a broad choice of literatures. User statistics are one thing, but a meaningful set of numbers for me consist of 813 and 823, the two numbers out of one hundred that Dewey ascribes for fiction in English.

This threat to the plurality of our reading interests and potentials is behind Bill Henson’s complaint about Melbourne public libraries, addressed on this blog last year. When Henson says second hand bookshops are the new local libraries, one of the things I think he is saying is that in those shops he is offered surprises and new choices that he was used to making in his public libraries, but that the streamlined non-fiction sections of these libraries no longer supply. Henson is a highly educated reader with expectations, but then he became that way partly through the serendipitous wonderland of the libraries of his youth. One would think that the librarian’s job is to create the same expectations amongst its users now.

Interestingly, County Judge Wolff of Bexar County in Texas continues by saying that “this system won't be a replacement for the County's City library system, but an enhancement to it.” And in many ways this is the worldview that ought to be informing the decision-making of planners in our libraries, whether in the public or academic or generalist fields. It has to be assumed though that the Texas bookless depository has been established in response to a perceived need.

Various issues come to mind at the prospect of more bookless libraries. Exactly what sort of long-term cost savings are being made in a bookless library?  What kind of reader satisfaction is found in such an environment? And how can we calculate that satisfaction? What kind of acquisitions policy is at work? Is the turnover of titles going to be the same as the one-year rule that states the book is removed if it hasn’t been borrowed? Are all books text-only? What happened to illustrated books? Is the public library shirking its responsibility to be giving the public a broad and eclectic collection?

Automation has driven the agenda for years now. The agenda is where the funds are, which is why we have an outcome where County Judge Wolff told the San Antonio Express News that “the library system plans for several locations, starting with a first one in the fall of 2013 on the south side of the county.” And the report continues, “They plan to save money by using buildings which are already owned by Bexar County, and have estimated that beginning costs are around $250,000 to secure the first 10,000 titles for the library.”  Digital libraries, or at least library departments, have been running for years, but public libraries both here and in the United States and elsewhere have had to work to keep up, mainly because they depend on public funding. Perhaps this is why now, when attention focuses on bookless libraries or predominant e-book fiction libraries, that the money talks. Suddenly the divide between fiction and everything else becomes an argument for the new technology over the old, e-books in preference to the book, an e-library rather than a public library with a plurality of materials. Thus the San Antonio Express News claims, “Several other cities have announced — and then aborted — plans to go fully digital. Still, the potential cost-savings for digital-only libraries in the long run should see more cities following suit in the future.”

All of this raises anew a very old question too: what is a librarian? If the task of a librarian is only to manage the arrangements for loaning e-books, what kind of relationship does such a person have with the borrowers? Is the librarian’s role of introducing readers to new literature simply sidelined? Will libraries consisting almost solely of the latest fiction in e-form leave us with a poverty of knowledge and awareness? Is this sort of thinking really being driven by the myth that it’s all just on the internet? And if so, is it not the job of librarians to go back to first principles and     start showing people what a book actually is? Are we going to head in the direction of reintroducing the next generation of readers to the contents of all those books in our libraries? Are we going to have to show readers how to read, especially if they are resistant to anything non-digital?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Secret History of Second-Hand Books

Philip Harvey
Theory, or more accurately Jacques Derrida, has given us the idea of the trace. These are the absences that are part of the presence of a text, and vice versa. If that’s how we want to understand Derrida. But readers, and librarians in particular, come across another kind of trace in books that is more physical and often loaded with its own meanings. This sort of trace is described in ‘The Immortalities’, a novel set in a library and written by the Australian theological librarian Nathan Hobby:

He came into the journals’ twentieth century. Morgan’s entries were obsessed with the books he had acquired. A few times a day, Tom would get up from his desk to find one of the books mentioned. A couple were missing, no record of them in the card catalogue. An early King James Bible was in a display cabinet, permanently opened to Ecclesiastes and a film of dust over the glass. A number of others were in the Rare Book Room, which he didn’t want to ask Sinclair IV for access to. A good number of the others were on the open shelves, waiting for him. They had carried on through ten or eleven decades or more—so many of them having a history before they even came to the library—outliving people, and he could turn the same pages Morgan had turned in 1900. Was the fine, white strand of hair between the pages of a Lewis Carroll Morgan’s? In Bleak House, he found a shopping list written on a slip of paper used as a bookmark. The reader—perhaps Morgan, although he was unlikely to have done the shopping—had apparently not finished it. A hundred years or so ago he or she had intended to buy a packet of tea, apples, a bar of soap, a pound of flour and a ‘Tatler’—whatever that was. He loved the survival of something so ephemeral. 

Morgan had wanted more than anything for his remains to survive and for an epigone to re-create his life from the traces. But what could Tom write of this process in the biography? He contented himself with the experience, which he saw as a kind of communion with the dead man. He imagined it flavouring, infusing the biography with the melancholy joy he felt.

The ephemera found in donated books, or even just any of the library  books really, is a part of the librarian’s job that is rarely recorded and for which there is no prior training. Working in a library with an active donations policy and an established program called the Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutions (BHRI), I regularly discover in my sorting almost every imaginable kind of bookmark and reader’s marginal notes. Like Morgan, with his strands of white hair and shopping lists, these objects not only have their intrinsic meaning, they tell me something about the readers and about the history of the book itself.

When I find a 1976 tram ticket at page 10, this is not a good omen for this book. Why did the reader stop at page 10? Had they started it hastily on the tram, knowing it had to be returned to the library that day? Or had they read up to page 10 on the day of borrowing and given up? Did the borrower spend as much time reading the ticket as the book? A whole collection of tram tickets from all eras could be assembled, if one had the time and forethought, but of course they usually end up going direct to the recycler. Certainly in a tram city like Melbourne, this is one of the most common lost bookmarks, and for all I know some of them could have a market value.

When I recall objects that have fallen out of books the list includes the following: envelopes with old stamps affixed, letters to colleagues with reasonable (usually) opinions about the book in hand, lecture notes on tear-out sheets, covering directions for review copies, old fashioned boarding passes from European airports, business cards with six-digit phone numbers, Christmas cards, pressed flowers, restaurant receipts, postcards passim. Money is acceptable, my favourites being $50 and $100 notes; thus far the highest finds have been $20 notes, though I keep an eye peeled. One is conscious while sorting on such a scale of the many readers who have gone before, closely reading through these books by day and deep into the night. This awareness is made more immediate yet by the objects that are found, or fall out of, preloved pages.

Second-hand religious collections contain a large proportion of religious ephemera, not all of it uplifting. Bookmarks abound of smiling pooches complete with a cheerful biblical quote beneath, examples of what New Testament scholar Dorothy Lee has called ‘Fluffy Dog Spirituality’. Two types of bookmark are common in donations to the Carmelite Library: images of Mary with or without Child, and prayer cards for recently departed priests and religious. As it happens, the Library holds the largest Mariology collection in Australia and previous librarians started a huge ephemera collection of every available image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Interest in the iconography of Mary is constant, so not only are all small reproductions of icons and other great images of Theotokos included in the file, but we have more than our fair share of rosy Raphaels and other famous Renaissance works. Cards from Marian shrines are a vital addition, and popular devotional cards and holy pictures of any vintage must be included. Memorial prayer cards however present awkward moments. The card asks us to remember the deceased in our prayers, so for wavery seconds I remember the named person whom I have never met, perhaps extending the thoughts to others. These cards prompt thoughts about the people who kept them, their special intentions and their reading interests. But soon I can be remembering the author of the book itself, the people who published the book, the readership of the book generally. A great cloud of interested parties is present in the moment. Not, of course, that I have any use for the prayer card itself.

One collection that told me how these found objects are not just random interests was given to the Library some years ago by a woman of formidable intellect and wide interests who was also the member of a women’s religious order. The academic interest of the titles alone was riveting, but of more than passing interest were the objects that clung, looped, drooped, depended, hid and otherwise abided thoughout the books. Sister had the practical habit of placing review cuttings of titles inside the book in question. It has always been a hard decision whether to remove these at cataloguing and I confess sometimes to leaving them inside the back cover, their rarity as valuable as their contribution to the scholarly debate. She determinedly visited churches on all continents, to judge by the number of church guides and postcards of these places secreted in her books. Crochet was a favourite pastime, at least she had a penchant for the crocheted bookmark in different shapes, including filigree strips, comets and crosses. Rome and New York were regular destinations, according to the plane tickets. Plenty of powerful religious verse kept a presence between the pages, as well as feminist Mary cards. It’s when the photographs started falling out of books that I decided to keep them in a special file and return them to her sometime: photographs of family gatherings and special services and group shots at conferences. An adult life could be traced through these photographs, of little meaning to the librarian but something to touch off personal associations in the mind of the original owner. Gradually a private world of interests, attractions and pursuits was revealed, first through the types of titles that Sister wanted in her own library, but then by all the objects that came with the books. Needless to say, the objects often brought into relief the nature of their reader, her character and likely interactions with the text. Some of them were the prompt for a new novel by Nathan Hobby.

Interest in the life of individual books and what they accumulate is not new; we only have to witness the centuries’ old academic pursuit of marginalia, especially that of great authors. But interest in the personal life of books and their collected ‘acquaintances’ has taken on a new life in recent years and is part of our reassessment, I believe, or rediscovery of the book as valued object, now that it vies for time and attention with its electronic counterparts. The book’s place in our lives and society is changing, and our perspective on what is a book. The ephemera that attaches itself to the book is evidence that each individual book has a life of its own and a meaning in time and space.


1. One such excavation or reminder of the many telltale relics contained in used books was an exhibition mounted last December at Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London, called ‘The Secret History of Second-hand Books’. The curator was the enthusiastic bibliophile (or is that extra-bibliophile?) Wayne Gooderham and the blogs to this online report are also worth reading:

2. A marvellous and more extensive discussion on the history of reading and the intersection with other ‘remains’ in the book is by Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle Review for December:

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Three Interiors, by Les Murray -- What is below resembles what's above

Philip Harvey
This is the ninth in a series of essays about the book in poetry, first released at this site.

We cannot read in the dark. But we have to learn to read things when we are in the dark. And we learn to read ourselves in the dark.

What a strange poem is ‘Three Interiors’ by Les Murray, this paean to the waking state. It is a triad of unconnected places - a public building in outback Broken Hill, a monastic Baroque library in Switzerland, an unnamed home at night that could be the poet’s home at Bunyah, but as well anyone’s house in the dark past midnight. We go with the flow of words, initially, admiring how the poem is like the vast room at Broken Hill, a “coloured mime of myriadness” that it is itself “Beauty all suspended in air”; how the poem is like the library floor, “settled suavely level and hardened”; and how it is like that sensation in the kitchen dark, “a stopping, teeming caution.”

But, being who we are, readers with a desire to make connections and meanings, we go into analysis soon enough. We notice touchstone words in each stanza. The poet’s interest in the Broken Hill building is about beauty and splendour, but more importantly about form, fact, and figure. It is a product of human engineering that requires good sense as much as proportion and building materials. The building is a testament to reason. The touchstones in the library stanza are ‘meditation’ and ‘quiet’, but we also have images in motion that describe the relationship between the old Earth we all inhabit and heaven, about which we are given earthly hints and resemblances. We are in a place of learning and peace. The building is a testament to mystery. The “last interior” is a place of dark, of hurt and fear, or at least a place where these feelings are experienced in safe, measured time. We see the touchstone words ‘balance’ and ‘gravity’, which are concomitant with the experience of the dark, but also with being at home.

The title of the poem ‘Three Interiors’ has been described by Peter Steele as “laden, looking as this [poem] does not simply to what is roofed and walled in, but to a place’s soul or genius and, more delicately, to the senses sleeping under the roof of language.” This is another useful way forward in reading the poem. Each stanza is deeply descriptive of an interior state of being, so that we are stepping through a physical place, which is well and good, but also going through there body and soul. We note how the poem opens in marvel, shifts to meditation, and concludes in fears overcome by calm. It emulates the movement of the Pater Noster, though is a poem before it is a prayer. That we conclude in the dark, and what the dark can do to any of us at times, makes us aware that the poem is not intended to be read in a purely linear fashion. 

Indeed, the poem is not just a triad of interiors for which the link is Memory, but a trinity of interiors, each speaking to the others and in that conversation producing harmony out of their very different states. Once the basic English components of the poem have been established, we are in a position to meditate on each of these places in ourselves. We may acknowledge them as existing in the same person, be that me the individual reader, or you the individual reader, or anyone.

Les Murray is a great one for libraries. He gets into reveries about libraries, has described them as his surf, and is plainly a believer in their certain good. He got into just such a reverie during his visit in December to the Carmelite Library, noting that where he grew up there were no libraries and it was when he went to town, and the university, that these incredible places opened up to him. (I asked if there were Mechanics’ Institute libraries in his childhood, but he said they had all gone.) His reverie on the particular library at St Gallen takes us to another concern of this poem, the role of the book in our lives.

The books themselves, that vertical live leather brickwork,
in the violin-curved, gleaming bays, have all turned their backs
on the casual tourist and, clasped in meditation, they pray
in coined Greek, canonical Latin, pointed Hebrew.

Theological librarians have special reason for enjoying the wry punning on what used to be called the Sacred Languages. They would not be so happy at the idea of the books having their backs turned on the visitors, the job of a librarian being to connect knowledge to the searcher by any means whatsoever, even though we see that the  poet has the books imitating the behaviour of their old makers, collectors, and keepers, the monks of the abbey. Some would complain that Murray idealises the library when he calls it “an utterly quiet pre-industrial machine room / on a submarine to Heaven.” Let them complain, only, Les Murray is using the St Gallen example to affirm the inestimable value of the written word in our work of reaching heaven. The gorgeous Rococo surfaces, we notice more closely, are secondary to the “vaguely heavenly personages who've swum up from the serried volumes below” and who, like those who “pad in blanket slippers” over the famous parquetry floor, are the only reason why ultimately all of this marvellous cultural effort is made in the first place.     

In the same essay Peter Steele talks about how implicitly in much of Murray’s poetry “the world itself is a library, a library made not (as at some other hands) for stupefaction, but for copious divulging. So it is appropriate that when he considers St Gallen’s library the reader is led into a microcosm, a place which is also a condition: and that the condition should be one of pluriform energies and performances.” This is another useful lead into the poem. In this trinity of interiors, the library is in conversation with the other interiors. To extend the Steelian idea, the poem is acknowledging books as an essential source for its existence, is placing the library as a centre of knowledge that gives form and substance to everything under discussion in the poem, and is fixing the library as a necessary part of the total reality being described with such care throughout the poem. Everything in existence is a ‘book’ for us to read; it is thanks to libraries that we can think in this way about the world.

The more we read ‘Three Interiors’ and meditate on the linkages between the three stanzas, the more we learn about how poems defy linearity and simple narrative drive. Even now as we speak we notice how the intricate construction of the building in Broken Hill is in the same creative province as the vaulted ceilings and “honey-lucent” floor of the St Gallen library. We connect the clasps of the books with the more challenging  “doorjambs without a switch”. We improve our acceptance of how consciousness is free in space and must live with the contradictoriness of that condition. The dark sayings in the final stanza each speak to lines of light in the first two stanzas. There are new inter-relationships being noticed through every fresh reading.

Source of Peter Steele quotes: ‘Les Murray : Watching with his Mouth’ by Peter Steele, in ‘The Poetry of Les Murray : Critical Essays’, edited by Laurie Hergenhan and Bruce Clunies Ross. (University of Queensland Press, 2001) 

Three Interiors
Les Murray

The mansard roof of the Barrier Industrial Council's
pale-blue Second Empire building in Broken Hill
announces the form of a sprightly, intricately painted
pressed metal ceiling, spaciously stepped and tie-beamed
high over the main meeting hall. The factual light
of the vast room is altered, in its dusty rising
toward that coloured mime of myriadness, that figured
carpet of the mind, whose marvel comes down the clean walls
almost to the shoulder-stain level, the rubbings of mass defiance
which circle the hall miner-high above worn-out timber flooring.
Beauty all suspended in air — I write from memory
but it was so when we were there. A consistent splendour,
quite abstract, bloc-voted, crystalline with colour junctions
and regulated tendrils, high in its applied symphonic theory
above the projection hatch, over sports gear and the odd steel chair
marooned on the splintery extents of the former dance floor.

The softly vaulted ceiling of St Gallen's monastic library
is beautifully iced in Rococo butter cream with scrolled pipework
surf-dense around islands holding russet-clad, vaguely heavenly
personages who've swum up from the serried volumes below.
The books themselves, that vertical live leather brickwork,
in the violin-curved, gleaming bays, have all turned their backs
on the casual tourist and, clasped in meditation, they pray
in coined Greek, canonical Latin, pointed Hebrew.
It is an utterly quiet pre-industrial machine room
on a submarine to Heaven, and the deck, the famous floor
over which you pad in blanket slippers, has flowed in
honey-lucent around the footings, settled suavely level and hardened:
only the winding darker woods and underwater star-points
of the parquetry belie that impression. What is below
resembles what's above, but just enough, as cloud-shadow,
runways and old lake shores half noticed in mellow wheat land.
The last interior is darkness. Befuddled past-midnight
fear, testing each step like deep water, that when you open
the eventual refrigerator, cold but no light will envelop you.
Bony hurts that persuade you the names of your guides now
are balance, and gravity. You can fall up things, but not far.
A stopping, teeming caution. As of prey. The dark is arbitrary
delivering wheeled smashes, murmurings, something that scuttled,
doorjambs without a switch. The dark has no subject matter
but is alive with theory. Its best respites are: no surprises.
Nothing touching you. Or panic-stilling chance embraces.
Darkness is the cloth for pained eyes, and lovely in colour,
splendid in the lungs of great singers. Also the needed matrix
of constellations, flaring Ginzas, desert moons, apparent snow,
verandah-edged night rain. Dark is like that: all productions.
Almost nothing there is caused, or has results. Dark is all one interior
permitting only inner life. Concealing what will seize it.