Another planet, other places

Another planet, other places

FIRST … THEN … By Melinda Smith. Ginninderra Press. 45pp. $17.50. THE SUNSET ASSUMPTION. By John Foulcher. Pitt Street Poetry. 77pp. $20. Reviewer: PETER PIERCE

The title and opening poem of Melinda Smith's First … Then …, a collection of ''poems from planet autism'', is choppy, unnerved, but essential to what follows. It recounts her deepening realisation of the changes that will be wrought in her life now that she is the parent of an autistic son. The foreword has already revealed that ''all the poems in this book are about life with autism''; has also dealt with how Smith has presumed to write not only of her own experiences as a mother, but ''in the voice of a person with autism when I myself am not autistic''. In ''Brain Weather'', she writes of how she has to try to understand a brain whose frontal lobe was cauterised, ''leaving you endless atomised local storms''.

The child is given a voice in the striking poem ''I prefer'', which lists some of those disquieting preferences: ''serious illnesses to surprises/computers to my brother/reading number plates to Christmas morning''. In the brief compass of this book, there is much else that is imaginatively and formally challenging. Consider some of her titles: ''Love song of autistic husband'' (one of the most plaintive of these poems), ''A prehistory of autism'', the brilliant and almost persuasive ''All magpies are autistic'' and ''Not the Botany Bay song'', which is telling subtitled ''A sea shanty for ASD parents and carers''. There is no lyrical impulse at work in these poems. They are terse, concentrated, questing without false hope.

The Sunset Assumption is John Foulcher's ninth collection of verse. The first of them, Light Pressure, was published in 1983, nearly three decades ago. The opening sequence of 13 poems, ''City of Light'', in the latest volume is a nod to the fellowship that Foulcher recently enjoyed at the Keesing Studio in Paris. Not that they are poems, being instead spare, carefully pondered and not effusive prose. There are elements of travelogue (''At dusk, you watch the lovers on the Pont Louis Philippe'') but the sequence is imbued with memories of the poet's childhood. These are prompted and focused, perhaps, by his living for a while in a foreign country. Prose it might be, but there are vivid images in the sequence: of monks and nuns - ''when they chant, it's as if their voices were chopped from the silence'', of sparrows - ''For the sparrows, there's nothing above the highest branch. They see the limit to things.''

As often before, Foulcher's wife, Jane, and the state and places of their marriage are a preoccupation of some of the poems. He is also moved by thoughts of his father's death, which happened when Foulcher was a child, now nearly half a century ago. About this, he is as wry as he can manage: ''After Dad packed body and soul/and bought his ticket to that good night.'' Soon we return to a traverse of Paris - its pigeons, its catacombs, the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Thinking of them, he is prompted by the same implicit question that was raised by the loss of his father. What is it that the dead leave behind for us? In the case of the famous pair of lovers, whom he ponders, there are only ''A few roses/asleep on the stone./Apart from this, there's nothing/other than your names''.

In addition to these poems, there is the one that gives the book its title - inspired by the cathedral church of Paris in its sights and resonances; an impressive sequence in which ''The Revolutionary Calendar'' that poetically if briefly renamed the French months and began history again with the Year One, is linked to the life and death of Maximilien Robespierre and a moving, short response to the great French film of last year Des hommes et des Dieux. Foulcher's The Sunset Assumption confirms his status as a thoughtful, melodious poet, one of seriously investigated religious beliefs, one morally attuned to the need for and the compromises of such beliefs. For now, he often escapes the notice of anthologists, but it ought not always to be so.

Peter Pierce is editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.