The poetry of Wallace Stevens

for Joyce Lee

A voice is a solid thing
One hears as though it were built
Entirely of air. It is substantial

Yet it carves out song from nothing.
A voice is a real thing
We cannot move through, that lives

Separately, and uniquely sings
The air on which it moves.
A voice reminds us of our distance.

A bad voice is all voice.
The good voice glows and lights
The air on which it throws out song

And bites. electrically, the space
In which we stand to hear: it alone
Is real, and clearly moves between us.

The perfect voice is in the mind
And never sings what can be heard;
It has a life its own that brings

The sounds the mind has learned
To the moment of the keenest singing:
Its song is pure imagining.

Mario Giacomelli’s Scanno

It’s 1962. Signor Giacomelli goes out with his camera,
His ‘avocation’. (Probably he had it with him by chance:
Who would want to take pictures at this hour?)

The sun half up, he uses flash, for contrast
And to brighten faces, but it’s no good.
Two noses and four down cast eyes only faintly appear.

What the matter? Are the women crying?
Has someone died? No. I think they’re always this unhappy.
After early mass somewhere in the Abruzzi district,

Traditional black coats eclipse the frame
Then wander dimly off.
You’ve probably not seen this photograph though

It’s very famous. The title is either something innocent
Or implies a sacrifice. And it’s strange
That when you stare into the puzzle for a long time

The little boy in long trousers
With his hands in his pockets, hair neatly combed,
And a face that shines specially,

Head cocked slightly right on top a crisp, white shirt,
Descends so nonchalantly on his own
Light pathway into this misery.

What is he
Here for?
What will he do?

Mario Giacomelli's 'Scanno'.
Mario Giacomelli’s ‘Scanno’ (1957).

The K-Tel instant love poem and cigarette machine

You say you __________ me
but your __________ smile
says otherwise.
And waiting like __________
in the __________ ,
photographs of our __________
become obscene __________ ,
that tug at my __________ ,
and __________ and __________ ,
when solitude draws
lines clinical and pale
as the __________ of a __________
in the __________ .

You pester me about
the way I leave my poems
__________ , so they are
open to __________ .
Like our __________ love,
never __________ , always
__________ , in the dark.
When I __________ ,
it feels like __________ .
Do you remember us
in Egypt, on the back
of that camel?

Is sex important?

it sometimes happens
we’re discussing the new wave
order of things
in one of those great
fashionable left-bank
cafés, imported all the way
from the paris end
of collins street

while reminiscing zürich
the homes of modern masters
the travels of ulysses
and the thousand unrelated
explosions at the end
of world war one

when james my friend
orders a toasted roll
in the hay, corned beef
and a size 38D bust with
tomato sauce, and i tell
the waitress that a plain
ham on rye with no pickle
will do for me wonders

after Invocation

we re off to see some movies/a double
feature at the uni sex college of prolonged
education/with its jeans jumpers t shirts
medium length hair & macho moustaches/
& there s this guy on the screen who s
wrapping hashish in silver foil like
cadbury chocolate/& smuggling it across
the border until he gets caught because
the authorities in turkey are really
into catching chocolate smugglers/there s
a moral here/& it s in the next movie/
where rae desmond is the new jesus
christ/grown 2000 yrs old of donkeys
& philistines/steps off his fat 500cc
BMW/& with all the christian love of
a man about to prove a point/commences
to bash the shit out of a bondi surfie/
who said his pomes weren t punk enough!
—pour it on rae/pour it on!

Ode to John Tranter

This morning a soggy newspaper on your doorstep announces that all Australia has become a suburb of Melbourne, Sydney is just a dream and Queensland a form of neurosis which will go away if you try hard enough. And you think it’s going to be one of those days. The Labor government you elected is somewhere to the right of Ezra Pound, the only Liberal you know has started to wear pink t-shirts and that operation Peacock had was really a sex change. But it’s not just the politics— only 9am, and already the next generation of new poets is bleeding loudly on the airwaves and a little voice inside your head tells you, “Les Murray can’t walk on water. You must believe me!” and you know it’s true but what waves it would cause if he tried! You realise suddenly that it must be an Overland day! because you can’t see any women in your kitchen except one on the back of a packet of corn-flakes, and even she’s only a token, but no, perhaps it’s a Quadrant day? after all it is their government that’s in power and Barry Humphries still looks good in a dress. Under the shower you try to forget everything that’s gone wrong, to wash away your unemployment like indelible ink or freckles. So it may be just another boring day, a Hansard day, or an Age Monthly Review day and you could sit in front of the bar-heater smoking pages of the Times Literary Supplement one by one and learning to write by osmosis or spontaneous combustion, because you don’t give a damn about cancer or mixed metaphors or your neighbour’s dangling participles— you just want to be a famous artist and have the government (any government) proclaim you a living national treasure so you won’t have to beg for food from the Australia Council Soup Kitchen, so the Literature Board will send you a leather jacket and every Monday a carton of tailor-mades and a six-pack of Coke will arrive by certified mail and you could do John Forbes or Gig Ryan rip-offs, in public, and no-one will know you’re faking it! In fact it may be a Scripsi day because only one hour after you thought it was an Overland day there still aren’t any women in your life and you always wanted to travel by proxy, except that you couldn’t tell the difference between Michel/e Tournier and Butor if it hit you over the head with a bi-lingual dictionary and no-one you know would dare speak Swedish in polite conversation. No, it’s definitely not a Scripsi day but it could be a Meanjin day! because you’ve always wanted to go fifteen rounds with an editor who thought (s)he could make the lame see and the blind talk and you know if you submit a poem to anyone from Melbourne University there’s always a good chance the empty gin bottle will stop spinning at your name, and that bonsai-epic verse about the forces of light and darkness you sent will be read by every socialist household in Moonee Ponds. Then it hits you! a kind of existential panic only West Australians are really familiar with— it might not be any kind of day at all, it might be a Going Down Swinging day when nothing happens and years pass you by like artistic brain-damage or Sisyphus in a Maserati. No, no— it feels like one of those days, a day for writing odes to John Tranter when all the most beautiful and irrelevant words in the world sing with one voice in praise of poetry and their own impotence, a day when Jacques Derrida is a brand of ice-cream or any drug that melts in the mouths of poets, when not being yourself is a pleasant change, a day for cleaning the sky of static and all those bleeding hearts, and you step out on the world singing: Heaven is my woman’s love, That’s the place I want to be. Heaven is my woman’s love, That’s the only place for me.
Originally published in Meanjin in 1984. Then, in Ashbery Mode, edited by Michael Farrell, Tinfish Press, 2019.


perform allegro con brio

when i fell its got to stop its because im afraid of what it might do to me if it does stop and im not ready to feel its got to stop because i might be pulling myself silly and the time when its got to stop might never come

when i feel its got to stop i take long walks under the sky under the words i left hanging in the air

when i feel its got to stop i eat bran and read logic so my conversation wont feel like an early mornings constipated pushing and groaning in the toilet

when i feel its got to stop im too polite and ask if i can interject your logorrhoea like rubber suppositories or cigarette butts in the kitchen sink

when i feel its got to stop i tell you i dont love you any more and mean it for at least as long as it takes me to say it and when you do think i mean it i want to die

when i feel its got to stop i call you at three in the morning and ask for a fuck and you give me the address of a friend whos out of the country and wont be back till next year

when i feel its got to stop i wont come at to your parties because i dont like talking philosophically about the aristotelian origins of wittgenstein and i dont understand how the tractatus can teach me to say i love you without farting

when i feel its got to stop its because i still love you enough not to want you to know that i feel its got to stop because when i feel its got to stop

when i feel its got to stop its because the six doughnuts of our love affair werent enough and after checking the contents of my box one last time you guiltlessly replace my sweaty body on the supermarket shelf between the baked beans and the chicken noodle soup

when i feel its got to stop i get lost in the city mapping the tedious plan of streets waiting for the place where the pain and sorrow of our last argument will fall out of the night and tear my guts apart leaving me to survive till morning by licking the remains of our last sensuous rain out of the gutter

when i feel it got to stop its because im afraid of what it might do to you if it does stop and youre not ready to feel that its got to stop because you think that the time when its got to stop should never come

This poem was published originally in Overland (1980) and then in The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems (1993).
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