John Elder reviews Clive Faust’s Collected Poems

  John Elder

  John Elder reviews Clive Faust’s
  Past Futures: Collected Poems

  JPR 08

Australian poet Clive Faust, Collected Poems, cover

Paragraph One follows: 1:

It’s funny now to think of T.S. Eliot as a difficult poet, because so much of what he wrote, even those tedious lines that were caught in constipated working-out of prayer, had a lyrical ease. There wasn’t much that was fractured, because he allowed his lines a measure of relaxedness. The difficulty was all in the meaning not the music, no matter his warnings of the deception of the thrush. The fact is, as an experience, he was easy to take and the older I get, the more I realise he let us off lightly — even though we credit him, or pointedly, his book The Waste Land, as the birth pains of modernism.


When I began reading Clive Faust’s Past Futures Collected Poems — and by reading, I mean an initial skimmed taste test, a bad habit of mine, but one that often proves interesting — I found myself snagged on so many lines, thinking not of Eliot, but his great and mad benefactor, Ezra Pound.


In reading some of Faust’s lines / fragments, I felt an image of almost Japanese nostalgia at work — and when I read the short biography, of his life in Japan, I thought ‘oh, all right then: is that what you’re about?’


Consider this from The Journey:
Electric / lights pale into clouded dawn, / but dawn nonetheless.


Faust continues, in what promises to be a serial picture show:
Train / at platform, taking in water, / steam off piston valves.


But there’s a little interior cerebral work, slipped between the images, where conversation or reflection rears its head in hard-boiled fashion:
You never had / a future — that was finished / before it’d begun.


The poem continues on, but less imagist, more impressionist, with a surprising soft sigh at the end:
It’s / good to be travelling now.


Much if not all of Faust’s poetry has this clipped ticket quality. I enjoyed most those that move from image to image, dip briefly into gripe or reflection and move on to a clever exit where the observed world gets mixed up with the chewed-upon world.


But even those poems that are almost purely ideas are equally hard-boiled.


Faust is playful, but rarely flip — or when he is, it’s with the flick of a cigarette butt on to the train tracks or factory floor. His vocabulary is deceptively simple, and the strategies aren’t daunting — but where he doesn’t let us off lightly, is his refusal to let the reigns out. The difficulty he presents, the demand that he makes, in poem after poem, is that you sit with two or three lines before moving on.


Sure, that’s how you’re meant to read poetry, slowly and with deliberation, but you can find yourselves not so much stalled on phrases, but nailed down by them. That can be hard going but it can be equally rewarding.


And so, these are poems where you might pick the lights out at first, before getting down to the work of feeling what he’s about. Sometimes, I felt a longing for longer lines from the same brain, something genuinely more conversational — without getting all American and sloppy — but he generally keeps to that short-hand of nuggety phrases that are lovely or at least honest, and certainly starkly alive, often despite themselves. Which is a rather neat accomplishment.


The Journey (page 184)

lights pale into clouded dawn,
but dawn nonetheless. Train

at platform, taking in water,
steam off piston valves. Boarded,
door shut to compartment. No

future? You never had
a future — that was finished
before it’d begun.

at night till state border,
wake at railway junction. Difficult
to see round sealed convexity
of glass. Stopover:

feet, legs stiff
upon platform.
at a refreshment counter, steams
off coffee, breath.
of people in wool overcoats, not
everyman but everyone. It’s

good to be travelling now.

Australian poet, teacher and critic John Elder.

Reviewer John Elder writes about science, birds, philosophy and social trends. He is a poet, a writing teacher, and co-authored the experimental and well received In the Ghost Country, with his friend and Antarctic companion Peter Hilary.


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