Reviewing a 7-year-old book might be seem to be stretching, but 91-year-old A.D. Hope deserves the attention. As Harper-Collins has not seen fit to publish a comprehensive edition of this poet, one takes what one can find. And what's here is often rewarding. Orpheus provides 59 pages of serious, comic and occasionally trite work, including "Teaser Rams," one of Hope's funniest erotic poems, and "Western Elegies," longer, meditative works in elegiac meter. In fact, all of the work is in meter, which is no surprise. Why?
I will have no truck with the scribblers of my
Who try to pass off their chopped-up prose as verse....
from "The Mermaid in the Zodiac (Antipodean Version)" by A.D. Hope
A.D. Hope's lifelong impatience with "chopped-up prose" puts him far outside the American mainstream of 1998, but in Australia in the 1930's and 1940's his passion for classical prosody was not unique. Isms came late to Australia -- indeed, Modernism's first appearance in the form of the Jindyworobaks movement in the 1940's was accompanied by one of the more enduring hoaxes in literature. Made up by poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, a fictional poet named Ern Malley (described as lately dead of Bright's disease) was published as an undiscovered Modernist by Max Harris in his journal Angry Penguins. (The hoax continues to this day; last year Faber & Faber published a "Collected Works of Ern Malley".) But McAuley and Stewart probably had little use for Hope either, because while Hope's use of meter and classical form was the equal or better than theirs, Hope's content shocked and outraged the late Victorians that dominated Australian academic and cultural institutions until nearly a decade after the Second World War. It's probably still difficult for Americans in similar institutions today, if not for its bawdiness, then for its particular brand of eros.
The Gate of the Future is not, as some suppose,
A triumphal arch, a grand and public portal
Through which, ushered by emperors, flanked by rows
Of professors and pundits, hymned by the immortal
Choirs of poets and prophets, we engage
In the onward March of Man from age to age.
The gate of the future, my friends, is a tiny
Two inches long, fringed with a flurry of hairs.
The world and all worlds to come emerge from it;
It makes the decisions the Big Brains think are theirs;
It makes the makers of undreamed science and art
And the world's crackpots who would blow it apart.
from "The Oracle" by A.D. Hope
It shocked the Australian literati that Hope also would transmute classical myths into tools for describing sexual love, and in a vocabulary as vivid as Henry Miller's. That such myths and their modern interpretation were said by Jung to be better than science in describing the archetypes of sexual love seemed not to affect Hope's critics. Australia's last generation of Victorians tried to silence him then; not surprisingly, he is revered as Australia's dean of poets now. Australian Modernists found him old-fashioned in his use of prosody and in his refusal to incorporate more of Australian daily life into his work. Hope seems not to have cared, refusing to affect the posture of victim that often afflicts targets of censorious critics. From the evidence, he only became bolder. Even in this very late book (Hope was 85 when it was printed), "Teaser Rams" looks at a woman with an impressive sexual drive not with the dark dreads that so often afflict such stories (see most Noir films) but with hilarity and amazement by the male narrator.
I'm spreading super on the forty acre,
The dust and the phosphate blowing ahead,
When up comes Joe in the old bone-shaker.
'I'll take her over from here,' he said.
'The Old Man's ordered me up to spell you.
Trust me to land this lousy job;
It's a soft cop for you, though; he said to tell you
You're to get them teasers down to the mob....'
Opening with farmhand simplicity, this poem is a Chaucerian romp as the narrator and the Old Man's wife go at it in about the way the rams might in the corral. It's as heated, driving and unreal as an erotic dream; for Hope, as for most normal people, such is not the prelude to dark intimations, particularly about the woman in the story, but for laughter -- somewhat out of breath. It combines elements of cartoon and myth in the way of a folk tale; and its lurid, colloquial diction and humor conceals its sharper, quasi-Oedipal content. The Old Man, by the end of the poem when the younger narrator has (he believes) satisfied the Old Man's wife, is described as a "teaser ram," a castrati who keeps his wife warm until the real thing shows up. A.D. Hope, like Karl Jung, felt psychological descriptions fell far short of myth and poetry; he followed these opinions up with many works like "Teaser Rams." But is that the sum of Hope?
For all of his reputation for erotic work, which has far giddier moments, as in the much earlier "Conquistador," the story of a very small man and a very large woman, or "Moebius Striptease," a wild fusion of mathematical language and Eros, Hope's range, built on a rich awareness of classical myth, of contemporary science, of multilingual gifts that included European and Middle-Eastern languages, and of a Satyr's devotion to sexuality (not only its depiction, by all reports), sweeps from the absurdly comic to the quietly meditative with an apparent ease that few beside Auden have managed in English in this century. One of the more rewarding pieces of Orpheus is a translation/adaptation of "The Fortunate Youth," described as being "from the 'iqd al farid of Ibn 'abdi Rabbihi." A poem of one man's infatuation for a singer causing the love of another for her to be fatally exposed, its couplets occasionally clank a little, but the story is otherwise conveyed well into English. The revelation of the older man's character as he turns sharply away from his infatuation after seeing the extent of the younger man's love might not be appreciated in more rapacious times.
The major work in this book is "Western Elegies." Written in a meter that John Hollander says is not possible in an accentual language, but which the poet had used forty years before in "Observation Car," Hope looks across his own life, starting with a revision of "The Song of Songs" which is centered on a great love, probably his wife, who'd died just prior to Orpheus's publication (and to whose memory the book is dedicated with the poem "Penelope"). It interprets his life and the subject's as a journey out of myth, "the world packed into a week in which I still spend my years unpacking,//That marvellous cave of Aladdin which leads on from cavern to cavern." The next, "The Aeroplane," continues this in a passionate poem of memory and love ending as he conflates the subject with myths and with familiar prayer:
Fire-keeper, phosphor, my phoenix, my Fata Morgana,
Pray for us now and in the hour of our reunion,
As I land on the desolate soil of an alien planet.
There are five parts to "Western Elegies," concluding with "The Tongues,"
an essay on knowledge of more than one language, where Babel is described
as a blessing, not a curse.
There is a share of silly stuff in this book, including an assortment of amusing and somewhat hackneyed epigrams on aging. One can hardly fault him on these, though they fall far short of the mordant and complex amusements he's produced over the years, including "The Great Baboons," a tartly amusing tale of a society which thinks too much, Ladies from the Sea, a play about Ulysses' domestic problems on his return from Troy (Circe and Calypso join him), The Age of Reason, a book of satires after Pope, Dunciad Minor, again modeled after Pope, a witty blast at his contemporaries in Australia (critics and poets and, as in Pope, you don't need to know the work of either to enjoy the piece). "The Language of Love" is funny but several cuts below similar work Hope had done decades before.
These are modest misgivings. If you can find it in America, a chancy proposition, Orpheus is highly recommended, and might be obtained through Amazon or through Grolier's. If they don't have it, you may also try the Fax number listed below the title above.
My thanks to Robert Darling, a leading scholar on A.D. Hope, for his assistance in this review, and to John Millett, Editor of Poetry Australia, for sending me a copy of Orpheus.
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