This life of yours is not a picture of the world. It is the world itself, and it is composed not of bone or dream or time but of worship. Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain
I was hoping to write about Luke Davies’ new book of poetry, Interferon Psalms, this week. I thought I’d be able to read it over the weekend, between various parties and the University of New South Wales EMPA postgraduate symposium. But it is definitely not that sort of book, not that sort of poetry. I started reading it on the bus to UNSW on Friday morning and was so arrested by its epigraph from Cormac McCarthy (see above) that I spent most of the 40 minute bus trip just absorbing the implications of those 30 words. The poetry that follows demands similar time, provokes similar thought. I could not gulp it down as I did Luke’s last book, Totem, which was a tropical deluge compared to Interferon Psalms‘ polar ice, its glacial density. (I am a lover of polar ice.) So I will be savouring Interferon Psalms over the next week or so, and will write about it when I’ve begun to absorb it.
In the meantime, I thought I’d give some Luke Davies background, based on an interview I did with him for Good Reading magazine in 2004, when he was embarking on the voyage that would yield his interferon psalms.
In 1982 a small book of poems called Four Plots for Magnets by Luke Davies was published in Sydney. Its young poet was a pale, dreamy-eyed university student who hung out in Darlinghurst at Exiles bookshop where poets like John Forbes read their work. The following year Luke finished his honours degree at Sydney University with a thesis on the Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. The next year he disappeared from Sydney. Several years later, in the early 1990s, he reappeared on the streets of Darlinghurst – still writing poetry as if his life depended on it.
‘Poetry comes out of nowhere and grabs hold of you,’ Luke said. ‘I’ve had some very scary experiences of that urge. On a freeway, finding a pen down beneath the seats and a scrap of paper, and trying to find a flat spot on the back of the steering wheel. Very dangerous I know, but I had to get it down quickly.’ What, exactly, did he have to get down?
‘Words. The very specific arrangement of words in relation to each other.’
Luke is widely known for his novels – especially the bestselling Candy (1997) which became a cult film starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish – but the luminous beauty and precision of his prose stem from its deep roots in poetry.
When I spoke to Luke in his Bondi flat in 2004, he had very little energy for writing. Which was exceptional: writing was what he’d ALWAYS done. No matter what. For the first time in his life Luke had been having trouble writing poetry. This was due to the nightmarish side effects of the Interferon treatment he had started, which was making it almost impossible for him to write the new prose poems he was working on.
These new poems – which he was calling the Interferon Psalms – arose partly from his desire to write poetry that was relatively free-form. Luke loves the rigorous structures of poetry, so his choice of a freer form was, he said, ‘a little bit risque, a bit scary. It’s a good exercise in “Just loosen up Luke”.’
Luke can still remember the first book of poems he read, when he was eight. He can also pinpoint, with the sort of manic specificity that makes him such an observant poet, the exact moment he became aware of poetry as an adult thing: it happened when he discovered Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in the school library aged 13, which inspired him to write his first poem ‘Mack and the boys’.
Luke said ‘This was the change of everything, not just poetry. This opened up a whole new universe. I was a weird little kid. I wasn’t like a teenage kid causing trouble. I was wandering into the State Library of New South Wales and spending full Sundays going through the poetry shelves.’ By the time he was 16 he was at every poetry reading in Sydney, ‘nervous and obsessed and insecure, looking with awe at all these fucking dreadful poets. I was just a semi-freak at that point.’ By the time he was 17, his poetry obsession was all-consuming and battled with ‘the tensions of living in the world and the unreality of having an obsession like that, which doesn’t help you live … comfortably.’
Since then, Luke has published four collections of poetry. The poems of his second book, Absolute Event Horizon (1994), are haunted by his years of drug addiction, with lines such as ‘I will remember the vileness every day / and that green strength which keeps the dogs at bay’, mantras against addiction.
His third collection, Running with Light (1999), is filled with meditations on love, life and loss. Its imagery is baroque – ‘drowning sailors hallucinating Christ come to breathe / His serene oxygen into their blue lips’ – and its humour wry: ‘There were times she said, / “we must go shopping,” and I thought it was / magic I heard’. It also contains moments of exquisite simplicity: ‘There are older agonies than churches’.
Luke’s fourth book, Totem (2004), is a lush opera of passionate love. At its heart is the 40-page love explosion ‘Totem Poem’, a release from darkness into daylight. Its five-line stanzas trace out the arc of a life in a hybrid mythic language – Christian, ancient Greek, Hindu – and culminate with the release of the Minotaur from the Labyrinth (thereby overturning the Greek myth):
‘World-in-a-belly. The Minotaur rounds the final bend, / weeping with fear and elation. The ocean opens out. / He doesn’t move a muscle. It all goes in. Fine day for a brisk dip. / The fluttering of butterflies, glorifying his name, / clustering around his astonished head, soaked in sunlight.’
When Totem came out in 2004 Luke had recently written the screenplay for Candy, which led him into the arena of script writing for cinema. But he had just decided to leave film behind, temporarily. Perhaps, he said, this was because he knew he was about to have Interferon treatment and felt he was ‘drifting from my centre’ writing for film. ‘I knew that with a bad time looming on the horizon it could be important to have my soul in balance, and that would mean returning to what was really important: poetry.’
I’m not prone to the sorts of statements Peter Craven’s so fond of, but having read the first two of the 33 fragments that compose Luke’s Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, I’m inclined to think Craven might not be exaggerating when he says of it: ‘It is one of the most ambitious performances in modern Australian poetry and it will command the world’s attention.’