First names (Simon West)

I greatly enjoyed First Names, a book of poems by Simon West, published by Puncher and Wattmann. Dr West is a specialist in Italian poetry, comparative literature and translation studies at Monash University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. His doctoral thesis È tant’ e dritta e simigliante cos Translating Guido Cavalcanti was awarded the University of Melbourne Chancellor’s Prize 2004.

The poems were reviewed by Barry Hill in the Weekend Australian Review, 26-27 May 2007, p.9. My apologies for being too lazy to write my own review — I’m not a literary critic, but I do want to recommend these verses.

Lyrical poet tuned to earth and sky
One way to think about this astonishingly finished and coherent little book is as an installation meant to demonstrate various moments with language. Here in one part of the room, is the moment when a glance between a man and a woman defeats words. Here is the moment between strangers where what you thought was a mutual introduction turns out to be a play of words. And here is where there seems to be “nothing in a name”, or where the mind disperses “the way a herd of goats spreads over the side of a hill-slowly and through the clatter of bells”.

These are fugitive moments; the mind can darken. But in the middle of the room is an item called Mushrooms, which is the title of Simon West’s opening poem. As the mushrooms “outgrow the dark grounds of their birth to join at last the light of day”, the poet reflect

The soft-fleshed name, mushroom,
of humus and moss, tugged at me
as if it had something to say,
as if it too could be prodded and wielded by the tongue, turned over to expose an underbelly’s hidden treasure of gills.

And the bloom of meaning when thought breaks from such pods, then spreads outward
like the scattering of spawn?
Shhh … This tissuey fruit is all syllable, is already
bowing to the moisture of earth.
Mushrooms fulfil their word, and then some.

What you have here is an exactly observed image made with the sound of things, and which has metaphoric power. The mushrooms themselves offer pleasure enough, as do palms, rosellas, starlings, persimmons and clouds, to name some of the things that objectify the titles of other poems in the book. West’s graphic power is wonderful, so that you feel, in all of his language moments, of this world.

In fact, you can also step into the book as a set of moods and landscapes beginning and lingering in northern Italy before transporting you to the Mornington Peninsula, the Australian Alps, and as far as the Australian desert (via a reflection on a painting by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri). The unifying tone is nostalgic, yearning, and quickly latch on to a fertile moment:

A bee deflowers a flower, collecting
pollen like a count of first names,
while man, screened by the fuzz of his own bee-talk,
looks on in envy at a labourer willed by love,
and whose thoughts perhaps lie with her tiny portion of the queen …
(A Bee)

All the book tells us about West is that in 2004 he held an Australian Young Poets Fellowship, and “was born in 1974 in Melbourne, where he currently teaches Italian”.

Yet the reference to teaching Italian is pregnant. His poems invoke the mouthing of words, love affairs with vowels, a sense of the foreign word well digested. The mood of his Italian landscapes reminds me of the modem Italian poet Eugenio Montale, just as his two poems after Guido Cavalcanti, along with the imagist lyrics that follow, call up the figure of Ezra Pound, that passionate disciple of Italy.

A critic cited on the back cover describes West as “a laureate of darkness and a lyrical quester of light”. True enough. But better to say that West is a poet beset by the roots and the reach of language. His poems seek the source of speech-the humus of the tongue, we might say, as their mushroomy bed-as much as they celebrate the way our words echo in starlight.

That, I think, is the joy of this book. You read it and feel that here is a poet absolutely attuned to both earth and sky, and who has-all of a sudden in a first book-worked out poems that make the great connections.

West was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Award for poetry.