Peter Rose, The Subject of Feeling. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2015. RRP $24.99, 124pp, ISBN: 9781742586885
Kicking off his sixth poetry collection with a tribute to American poet Donald Justice, Peter Rose hits readers with ‘Twenty Questions’, an ironic spate of queries that elicits laughs at readings, yet has an undercurrent of epistemological thoughtfulness. In weaving the domestic and profound—juxtaposing ‘Is your passport current?’ with ‘Are you a real character?’—Rose sets the tone for The Subject of Feeling, in which life’s wry comedy sits alongside quiet reflections on the human condition. Speaking at the 2016 Perth Writers Festival of the ‘thinginess’ of poetry, Rose uses images that are quotidian or beautifully mundane: a toddler lost in the park, a boy skateboarding at the Victoria markets. Self-described as an imagist, Rose uses each poem to paint concrete scenes and true to the imagist dictum, he treats his subjects directly, unflinchingly. Though Rose has professed to be ‘not good with the abstract’, The Subject of Feeling adroitly sprinkles abstractions amongst the concrete, giving them more depth—perhaps, ironically, more texture.
In this book, which has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry, many opening lines are composed and understated, gently welcoming readers into their narrative (‘I always remembered her’; ‘So many years ago’; ‘That man in the park’). The calm, arguably prosaic openings crescendo to resonant final lines that evoke anxiety, desire, or fear. Though the poems chart familiar territory such as running into a former schoolmate, or being wakened by a ‘distant currawong’, they explore complex facets of life, such as the unreliability of memory, or humanity’s relationship to nature. In transforming each poem to more than the sum of its parts, Rose repeatedly takes readers to places of uncertainty or ambiguity; and though he brings them safely in at each poem’s end, there is the unsettling feeling that this safety could be once again taken away.
The title—The Subject of Feeling—subtly parodies that which forms the subject of all literature and art: our emotions. Yet beneath this is an ominous and literal meaning, the physical sensation that can be lost in the moment of an accident: ‘Then the subject of feeling – / why you had none in your feet.’ These lines come from the title poem, Rose’s elegy to his brother, Robert, who became a quadriplegic following a car accident in 1974. Peter Rose began the poem shortly after Robert’s funeral in 1999, and has crafted it with unexpected rhyme and buoyant lyricism, a stark contrast with the grave subject matter. In ‘Tiles’, Rose pays tribute to his mother Elsie, who was affectionately embraced by readers of his memoir, Rose Boys. ‘Tiles’, unusually lengthy for this poet, culminates in the heart-rending image of Robert counting the stained ceiling tiles of his hospital ward, ‘never to arrive at the same number […] Never, never, never, never never.’ It is this ‘crumminess of life’, as Rose puts it, life’s banal experiences, which his poetry poignantly unravels. Like his image of the magpie with its ‘nesting, arrowy urge’, Rose works away at meaning and emotion; he opens these up in a way reminiscent of the title poem’s final thudding phrase: ‘like a sack of wheat.’ (5, 23)
The collection is richly allusive to visual art, poetry and music, and the references are accessible to readers whether they are familiar with the art or not. An example is ‘The Vendramin Family’, after Titian’s The Vendramin Family Venerating a Relic of the True Cross, which delves into the painting and then out to the poet’s experience of it, sparking a dialogue between present and past:
Tell us now, earnest youth
in the second row, mouth open
in something like mystification –
the idiot as inspirado?
Listless we shelter in the gallery,
the gallery as reliquary –
wet from the London rain,
shaken by wonted sirens,
in a handsome guise. (15)
Rose achieves a similar effect in ‘Maria Callas’, bringing her music into the world of domestic experience: ‘Dead these thirty years, / you sing for me this morning, more ecstatic than my clerical breakfast.’ (18) Rose’s persona confronts the dilemma of whether to purchase ‘seven CDs for just $130’, to ‘risk the harsh unheard’. The final line ends section one the way it began, with ambiguous humour and a hint of humanness: ‘Stock is definitely limited.’ Speaking of artistic allusions, Rose ends his collection with twenty-five new poems in the Catullan Rag, a series so prolific that it must be due for a ‘New and Selected’ or similar. Though Rose inhabits the character of Catullus, we catch sight of his editor persona as he playfully presents a Lesbia who corrects Catullus’s grammar and syntax. (52) These poems emulate Catullus’s fine balance between plain, unadorned verse, and visceral images of passion and sex, reappropriating the Roman characters in a contemporary Australian context.
Though Rose has joked that he has only two poetic subjects—loss and epistemological questions—it is clear that his poems encompass so much more. Having grown up in a famous Collingwood family, it seems natural that Rose would use the occasional sporting metaphor, a particularly striking one being, ‘They keep death from us / like the ultimate pass.’ (29) While this book shows that loss can blindside a person and those around them, Rose boldly tackles this topic – as well as art, desire, urban space, literature, and love—consistently passing them to the reader with precision and force.
Amy Hilhorst is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia, researching representations of psychosis in Australian poetry.