Luke Davies and his interferon psalms

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.’

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13 Responses to Luke Davies and his interferon psalms

  1. Lorne Johnson says:

    Hi Jane,

    This is interesting. I’ve been a fan of Luke’s poetry for many years. I’ve met him a few times. He’s kindly read and commented on my own verse (I’ve had a few poem published here and there). I grabbed up Interferon Psalms the moment it came out and devoured it… I’m not sure what to make of it… I wanted to be knocked unconscious by it… I was often befuddled and underwhelmed… the memorable grandeur and poignancy of Totem and many of his other works seemed to be missing… still, there were many fabulous lines and ideas there… I need to reread and reread it… I’m sure I missed too much of it.

    All good things,

    Lorne Johnson
    http://lornejohnson.blogspot.com
    http://wildbundanoon.blogspot.com

  2. Hi Lorne – Thanks for your comment, which is extremely interesting to me. First, I like hearing that Luke’s been supportive of your verse and that you’ve had poems published. And second, I’m very intrigued by your response to Interferon Psalms. I’m now only up to the seventh fragment, but it’s been waxing and waning for me too. Especially after the third fragment. Like you, I want to be knocked unconscious. (Oh we ask so little.) I don’t mind being without grandeur, in fact I’m very happy with its absence, but … Shall write more when I’ve read the whole. And perhaps reread it.
    Thanks again for your comment, really appreciate it. And for links to your work which I’ll follow up. Cheers and all good things back to you, Jane

  3. Val Clark says:

    Yes, those first 30 wordsmake me want to read the rest – as you infer, respectfully and intentionally,

  4. Lorne Johnson says:

    Nice one, Jane.
    I’m a school teacher (English) on the outskirts of Sydney. I’ve leant ‘Interferon Psalms’ to one of my bright, poetry-obsessed Yr 12 students. It will be interesting to know what she makes of it.
    Luke’s living in LA these days, pursuing screenwriting dreams I think. Have you read his chapbook ‘The Feral Aphorisms’, which came out several months ago? I went to the launch at Gleebooks in Sydney. I had mixed feelings about that work too.
    All good things to you,
    Lorne

  5. Wow that’s great to hear Lorne, thanks for letting me know (about your bright poetry-obsessed year 12 student – how inspiring).
    And yes, you’re right about Luke living in LA and writing for the screen. And no, I couldn’t make it to the launch of his chapbook at Gleebooks and until you reminded me of it I’d totally forgotten about it! So thanks for reminding me. And *interesting* to hear you had mixed feelings about it. I’ll have to check it out.
    All good things back to you. cheers, Jane

  6. Lorne Johnson says:

    Saying all that, Jane, I reread Totem, The Entire History of Architecture, Absolute Event Horizon and Running with Light, on a regular basis. Earlier in the year, I dug the rare-as-dragon’s-teeth Four Plots for Magnets out of the bowels of the National Library in Canberra, to read for the very first time (there’s a terrific Ancient Mariner inspired work in the slim collection). Luke’s verse is always unique and haunting/poignant.

    Here are my fave lines from Interferon Psalms: ‘The world was inside me. I had become my life’, ‘You came down from the hills to devour the world’, ‘I returned to the poem, the one true place’, ‘It is not a lost city if you settle your heart’…

    Best,

    Lorne

  7. How wonderful Lorne that you reread him so often. That’s the way to be with poetry. I never reread it as much as I’d like to. You must know Luke’s books inside out. And your lucky students. I actually have a copy of the beautiful ‘Four Plots for Magnets’, it’s possibly my favourite and I love the ancient mariner inspired one too, if you mean: ‘O to be in the Arctic / with an albatross in the air …’? I read it to my first year creative writing students at UNSW (where I’m tutoring this semester) because Luke wrote it at their age and it’s so … ecstatic.
    I love hearing your favourite lines too. I’ve just checked the ones I’ve scribbled on (reading slowly still, only up to #10) and I seem to like the funny or ironic lines, like ‘But even a bull can be felled by a flukeworm’ and ‘All bees the one bee, I had once thought. My grandiose period. Now I saw the dead bees, sated on all that chlorine, in the swimming pool.’ and ‘For a while I stopped being filled with wonder. This was merely disrespectful rather than Satanic.’
    Thanks so much for your thoughts on Luke’s poetry – loving it/them!
    cheers, Jane

  8. Lorne Johnson says:

    Hey again Jane,

    I trust you are well.

    I have a new poem on my blog – you may or may not be interested.

    http://lornejohnson.blogspot.com.au

    Lorne

  9. Lorne Johnson says:

    And I’ve just discovered an interview with Luke on the ABC Radio National Book Show site where he’s talking about the evolution and construction of ‘Interferon Psalms’. Tell me what you think.

    Lorne

  10. Hi Lorne – thanks so much for letting me know about your new poem, which I look forward to reading, and for mentioning the interview with Luke on Radio National, which annoyingly I missed yesterday but will def check it out online. cheers, Jane

  11. Pingback: Luke Davies | TheLabyrinthOfChemicalSensitivities

  12. Pingback: Luke Davies wins inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry for Interferon Psalms | bookish girl

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