NEW SELECTED POEMS.
By Geoff Page. Puncher & Wattmann. 290pp. $29.95.
In the vividness and variety of its poetic gallery, in its formal assurance and moral heft, Geoff Page's New Selected Poems is a fitting (though one hopes provisional) summary of a career that is now moving steadily towards its half century. The work collected here is, as he says, ''drawn from more than 40 years of writing''. Excluded are excerpts from his five verse novels (a form flourishing as never before in Australian poetry), as well as his ''tandem translations and … eight-liner travel chapbooks''. What is left is a rich traverse of his roots, in a pastoralist family based by the Clarence River in northern NSW, from which he turned away for the city; numerous plangent investigations of the personal costs of war; poems of travel; light verse, for which Page has as deft a touch as any of his contemporaries.
The book begins with compact images - the ''final bow'' of the ''softshoe possum'' before it becomes road kill, William Carlos Williams on his dual role as poet and general practitioner in Rutherford and jazz - a lifelong love for Page. Poems drawn from his collection Smalltown Memorials (1975) follow. There are character sketches - of a country nun and a man called Bert who is familiar with ''the vagaries of fences and old cows'' and laments for ways of life that are slowly passing away. As always, his eye is both keen and compassionate: ''Out on back-roads/the churches are dying'', ''Yards of dusty/Fords thin out''.
The short lines reinforce the sense of a society that is being reduced from the plenitude that once it knew. What has not been attenuated are the names on Great War memorials, with their ''long descending lists of the dead''. Aspects of that war move Page to anger. His Christ at Gallipoli is a bitter response to the enlistment from the pulpit of the Prince of Peace, while Home Front focuses on a woman who distributes white feathers to supposed shirkers: ''her tram sways home past harbour street-ends/uneasy with so much conviction''. In perhaps his finest poem of the Great War, Trench Dreams, Page writes of how ''A whistle swings us/over the top/to falter at last on gunfire''. His farming family were in a reserved occupation. In Cassandra Paddocks, Page describes a bookish ancestor who all but loses his property: ''As cedar shelves filled tight/a run of paddocks fell to neighbours.''
Page's own defection was less grave, but he writes of his father's disappointment at all from which his son turned away.
There is never a shortage of complex affection in his poems of rural life. His Grit is a doxology- that is, a poem of praise for the women of his mother's generation: ''the women who by wordless men/were courted away from typewriters/and taught themselves to drive.'' Some were embittered, with ''grievances going/decades back''. Page frequently reflects on what he left behind. The pull of place never slackens. Of New England, 1952 he recalls how ''the landscape's mainly/mist and granite/merinos in a clearing fog''. A key poem (from the collection Human Interest, 1994) is The Clarence at Copmanhurst, which begins with a beautiful image of ''cattle cut off at the knees/and drinking their reflections'' and moves into melancholy questioning.
Who could know ''that forty years would make so much/forgetting? I stand here where two rivers meet/and feel them both as separate lives''.
The range of subjects in New Selected Poems is remarkable from homage to lost forests of cedar to musing about the murderer Ivan Milat and ''the unseen, un-/accepting dead/who walk fire trails/in his head''. In The Relatives, Page dares to imagine an Aboriginal view of the Europeans who have come to their land: ''the hard-eyed ghosts/have proved tenacious.'' In Credo he declares himself: ''the dark-night-of-the-soul agnostic/prefers the right to doubt./The world's too much beset by those/who know what they're about.'' In the matter of his long and lovingly practised craft, Page knows what he is about.
He is one of the most buoyant, versatile, playful and serious, broadly accomplished of our poets. Besides saluting the many pleasures here, it is right also to honour his work as a teacher and mentor of other poets.