Robert Gray. Daylight Savings. George Braziller, Inc, 2013. 113 pp. $15.95, paper.
Robert Gray is one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, but Daylight Savings, which consists of forty poems spanning his nearly forty-year career, is his first book to be published in America. At first I wondered how these poems would translate to my own experience, which has taken place so far from where the poems were written. References to his home country do abound; Gray touches on Australian culture and history, especially focusing on its landscape and unique plant and animal life (there are, indeed, kangaroos). But these poems are not limited by their geography. They boil down to the essentials—nature, death, art, love—in a way that reaches far beyond their context.
What’s refreshing about Gray is the path he takes to address these themes. He rarely hands the reader unfounded abstractions; instead, he provides images that are consistently evocative but also accessible. In poem after poem, he doggedly engages with the ordinary world: rocks, chickens, rain, cows, a suitcase, a dumpster, eucalypts, beetles. In “A Testimony,” Gray writes:
Things as they are are what is mystical. Those who
search deepest are returned to life,
to ferns in a jug on the window-sill, to a burned-off
hillside in the dusk that is like opal.
Underneath all of our intellectual striving—our poems, our theories—there are simply things. A jug on a window-sill tells a story, a truth. William Carlos Williams’ phrase, “No ideas but in things,” comes to mind. And while the poems in Daylight Savings are actually full of ideas, the ideas arise secondarily out of images, like steam coming off water.
Robert Gray is a realist, and the value of his poetry, at least partly, is that reading it allows us to look at our own realities differently. One of his tools for achieving this effect is the simile, which he wields like a life-giving blade. In his hands, the simile is not decorative but essential. By opening up new angles of vision, the simile serves Gray’s primary goal of uncovering—or recreating in language—what makes reality so “mystical.”
In “Earthly Music,” Gray looks at the cut black hairs on the floor of a barbershop and imagines they are Japanese ideograms. This is just a small moment of creative perception, but it helps open up a sense of potential in the poem, a sense of the strange and artful coincidences you begin to notice in nature if you look. But the similes get more human—and more cutting. In “Philip Hodgins,” at a friend’s funeral, Gray looks at the coffin dangling above its hole in the ground and imagines the space between them as “The empty place the world is hung upon.” Here his imagination intensifies the stark loneliness of death, but it also plays with perspective—zooming out into space—in order to make the reader feel the moment’s coldness unexpectedly.
In “Curriculum Vitae,” Gray provides a remembered image of his young mind maturing: “my mind first opened, like a bubble distended from a glassblower’s tube, / and shone, reflecting / things as they are.” I mention this simile because it is characteristic of several aspects of Gray’s poetry. For one, the image is humble. He is not depicting his mind as explosive or incredible—not as a blooming flower or a river bursting through a dam. It’s just a glass bubble. He’s not even taking credit for his mind; instead, his mind is the result of somebody else—some greater force—blowing it out. Despite the humility of his claim, the image is highly original. And finally, it acts as a metapoetic statement of Gray’s ambition: to reflect “things as they are.”
Gray engages in this type of reflection repeatedly. The practice is largely external: looking out at the world, trying to empathize, trying to describe what he sees in all its nuance and capturing its implications. Despite this practice of external observation—or perhaps because of it—some of his best poems are his most personal. When he turns his steady eye inward, towards his own life, the result is never dramatic. Rather, it achieves emotional weight due to the sheer honesty of the examination.
In “In Departing Light,” Gray describes visiting his mother who is suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s. She has to be tied to her wheelchair or else she’ll fall. Gray writes, “It’s as though she is being sucked out of existence sideways through a porthole / and we’ve got hold of her feet.” Due to her confused mental state, his mother’s speech becomes nonsensical. She makes statements such as: “The sun / is mechanical”; “The lake gets dusty”; “The little boy in the star is food.” For a moment Gray wonders if she has become profound in her illness, transformed into a kind of surrealist poet. But soon he acknowledges that he is fooling himself, and that this line of thought just “appeals to my kind of superstition.” As he holds her, he comes to an unblinking realization: “This is all / of your mother, in your arms.” The statement is simple, and the word “all” is crucial—his mother exists only in her physical form. She is not a memory, or a character in a poem. These representations may persist, but when her body dies her actual self is gone forever. By reminding himself of this, even during such a painful moment, Gray proves his dedication to the concrete, to the physical world, the world you can touch.
Another poem, “Valedictory,” is personal and risky for an entirely different reason. In it, Gray is being interviewed by a younger female reporter. It soon becomes clear that there’s an attraction between them. But Gray—remembering that “Rilke has warned the artist / not to make himself ridiculous, in his years of recognition… / through the undignified pursuit of younger women”—walks away. The sexual dynamic between an older artist and a youthful admirer is far from traditional poetic material, and the poem could easily turn preachy, self-important, or downright creepy in the wrong hands. Yet Gray faces the discomfort with an honesty that makes the tension dissipate, even while admitting his own longing. “Hard to bear,” he writes, “that we are shown these people who are like visions, / and yet never anything comes of it but that.” This is a modest statement, but one that carries a quiet grace. The fact that Gray is able to assemble this grace out of a subject that most artists would rather hide from is a testament not only to his poetic skill, but also to his unwavering effort to shine light on “things as they are.”
“Valedictory” is followed, on the next page, by a short poem called “Thinking of Harriet.” In its entirety, the poem reads:
Years back, come to Japan, my step-daughter,
in our fifth-floor apartment, made a bound
from off the matting, and as she landed
the entire building shook. Her eyes were round.
Placing this poem directly after “Valedictory” creates a vulnerable resonance. While “Valedictory” is about sexual attraction towards a younger woman, this poem is a snapshot of familiar love for a young girl. Pairing the two seems to suggest an awareness—even an acceptance—of one of the uncomfortable realities inherent in parenthood. One day, Harriet will grow into a sexual being, subject to all the messiness that that role carries with it. It strikes me as brave that Gray, in these two poems, subtly admits his conflicting stakes in a complex and overlapping social web: a caring father on the one hand, a desiring man on the other.
The short poem also exemplifies Gray’s emphasis on imagery. He ends the poem by stating a visual fact: “Her eyes were round.” Is this a metaphor? No, yet the image suggests so much—purity and youth, but also perhaps knowledge, sharpness of perception. Herein lies the power of Gray’s images; rarely do they tip their hands and reveal themselves to be simple metaphors. Instead, they create resonances that as a reader you can feel but not quite put your finger on. They function the way images tend to function in the real world. When you watch raindrops slide down your car window, or when you enter your kitchen at midnight and see a mouse disappear into a hole you didn’t know existed—these are not metaphors, yet as images they can speak to a sense of melancholy, or mystery, or whatever it is you are looking for. Gray has a penchant for keying in on these moments and handing them to the reader fresh, untainted by overbearing meaning.
“Thinking of Harriet” also calls attention to Gray’s use of rhyme. Many poems in the book are written in rhyming quatrains or couplets. In “Thinking of Harriet,” the rhyme is obvious. But more often the rhymes are subtle—they may even go unnoticed on a first reading. Gray also writes in free verse—long lines, short lines, and jaggedly uneven ones. He writes prose poems, haiku, aphorism, ekphrasis, and litany. Sometimes the poems have no punctuation at all and just ride the natural rhythm of language and line breaks as in a W.S. Merwin poem. Keeping in mind that there are only forty poems in this book, the formal range is striking. This is not a poet who is content to find a single voice or style that works and repeat it. Rather, he is continually searching for new and better containers for his perceptions, experimenting with language as he goes.
In his introduction to the book, Paul Kane writes that the poems seek “a kind of sanity that allows for the fullest possible experience of this sensuous world in which we find ourselves.” Indeed, reading the collection felt like getting a dose of clarity. I found myself thinking that this book was the opposite of the Internet. Reading it can be challenging—entering the imagistic world that Gray creates requires patience. The poems refuse to gratify any desire for quick resolution, dramatic narrative, or easy payoff. Taken as a whole, they read almost like a secular prayer. In “A Testimony,” Gray writes, “Our only paradise is the ordinary: to be fed by what is really here.” The attentive reader will find a feast of perceptions in Daylight Savings. This is a book capable of changing the way you see.