Margaret Bradstock reviews “A Cool And Shaded Heart”

A Cool and Shaded Heart

Noel Rowe

(Vagabond Press, ISBN 97805511307, $25)                                 

Just under a year since Noel Rowe’s untimely death, Vagabond Press have graced us with a volume of his collected poems, selected by editor Michael Brennan. The collection does not include Rowe’s first book, Wings and Fire, which he had consciously moved away from, but Section I comprises early poems published in university and literary journals, and selections from his second work, Perhaps After All (1999). This section is especially significant in offering:
          examples of many of the key themes Rowe pursued throughout his
          writing, such as the work of mourning, the significance of family
          origins, relations and childhood, the evolution of spirituality and the
          questioning of received faith, communion with others through friendship
          and loss, and the day-to-day politics of simply being in the world at the
          end of the twentieth century.        (Preface, p.11)
The opening poem, written for the poet’s mother, exemplifies a number of these themes as well as Rowe’s versatility with traditional rhyme and rhythm patterns:
You lift your cup in the weak light, the bare
morning, and steam is touching you.
You eat toast, cut and buttered thin,
while the house settles breathing about you.
You and the furniture take the signs in
of children and time. Photographs hold
but do not give. The jacaranda has made mauve
again, the frangipani white with bruise of gold.
                                                    (from “You Lift Your Cup,” p.15)
Material things become sacred in the context of emotional connection. Likewise, in the rest of this section, insights and images surprise with their sensitive grasp of the moment, as poems celebrate the existence of friends and observed strangers.
Section II comprises the early, unedited manuscript of the collection Next to Nothing (2004), with the poems in their original order. Particularly moving are poems on the death of Rowe’s father, the emotion spare, again presented indirectly through everyday images:
running his finger like the wind along the fence
to feel its worried grain
noticing beneath the strong and almost everlasting fig tree
the cows sitting black shoulders forward like nuns at prayer
                                                                (from “Perhaps after all he hasn’t gone,” p.31)
                                                                Habits shaped                                                                                                  
for thirty-six years of marriage hang about the house
and wonder what to do.
                                                   (from “Pentecost,” p.32)
This section also includes conversations overheard on buses, dramatic monologues, and, in “War Coverage” (p.48), an exposé of the political-speak which masks our perception of the realities of war, so that:
                              It’s only later that the images we see
of Baghdad’s skin being stripped and sent away weeping,
of blood lost and stumbling through the camera’s eye,
of children’s limbs abruptly stopped and going nowhere,
really do disturb:
The beautifully understated sequence “Magnificat,” in the voice of the Virgin Mary, underscores the humanity of Christ and queries the inevitability of his resolve. Cadences stretch across lines, the enjambment carrying the forward impulse of the poems:
Last night, when the bread went
from my hand to his, it was bruised,
and still he carried the scent
of the broken jar, the sinner’s nard.
When, to take his wine, he bent
his shoulders forward, I was afraid
to ask, did he wish, now, I had refused?       (p.60)
               Having seen so many reversals,
I should have known he would test his muscles
on the stone, and walk away from the dazed
grave, leaving its mouth open and amazed.    (p.61)
Other poems are variously written for friends and mentors (“Watermelon, the only word I have”; “For Kevin Lee, Professor of Classics”), experiment with form and style (“On This Winter Morning”; “Backyard Blues”), or make connections between Buddhist thought and traditional Western theology.
The fourth section of the book, the complete text of Touching the Hem, written during Rowe’s initial period of cancer treatment, is indisputably his finest work. In her review of the 2006 volume, Judith Beveridge reminds us that
          Rowe’s greatest gift in these poems is to see beyond personal distress
          and discomfort and to connect with what one could argue is poetry’s
          most significant benefit: community.
                                                                           (Southerly, vol. 67, no.3, 2007, p.223)
Again the wry, spare imagery does duty for statements of suffering and loss, as in poem 13:
Today I’m allowed home,
taken, after one month away,
by the occupational therapist. She wants
to see how much the house needs to be
modified. The bed, the leather lounge,
the kitchen table, the madonnas, buddhas and paintings all
indicate this is the place where I used to live
but now they appear in a different light,
one that is faded, less substantial. I’d like                                                                   
to make it to the garden but can only stand                                                                
at the back door (the therapist says another step
is needed) wondering if the lilies from
my mother’s garden are still alive. By now
it’s raining, trees are rubbing themselves up against
the cleaned air, and a bird is darting past
the frangipani tree without a sound.               (p.151)
Moments of heightened lyricism contrast with the seemingly matter-of-fact, a microcosm of acknowledged temporality. The phrase “the place where I used to live” suggests that the poet has already moved on.
In his reactions to both living and dying, Rowe does indeed “touch the hem,” and a reading of the poems in A Cool and Shaded Heart allows us particular insight into that state of grace.