December 01, 1988

Harsh but Reasonable

Filed under: Archive,Books

Mars Peter Porter
Illustrated by Arthur Boyd
Andre Deutch

Mars, hoodlum son of Hera and Zeus, liked more than a malenky bit of ultra-violence, so the sources say, and Thracian deity that he was – the more gratuitous the better.

In Mars, Peter Porter, in his fourth collaborative volume with artist Arthur Boyd, has written his most pungent verses since Annotations of Auschwitz. Mars is a splenetic jeremiad against twentieth century warfare alongside which Boyd’s stumpy, perfunctorily daubed figure drawings accumulate with darkening intensity.

In the opening poem, Dies Irae, Porter establishes a drumbeat of clashing rhyme:

Sinners by their sins are beckoned,
To relive each sinning second
Which the Domesday Book has reckoned …

… In the ‘Dirty War’, private vengeance
proves it knows
how to pose as ideology.

Righteous Judge of all the Living,
Bring the gift of your Forgiving
To this day of final sieving.

In California, rich men’s corpses
are stored for re-birth:
‘Many are called but few are frozen.’

Porter’s intimations of mortality are emphasised by the psychotic caprices of the gods – “Olympian Zeus/ the comic adulterer / and Zeus Chthonius, dread potentate” –

I look in your eyes and you in mine,
and language now is comic
among the strutting tragedies.

Mars’s birth is grimly auspicious – “Juno, tarred with white feathers, see(s) her millionth son entombed on the Somme/ Jupiter discover(s) his club’s been invaded/ by hard faced men who did well out of the war” –

Mars’s rattle shall smell of gas,
his toes fail to answer his nerves
his bubble and dribble be sherbert with blood.
(Mars’s Divinity)

Mars and his phallo-travellers, Priapus and Vulcan, are wagers of war and pioneers of genocidal progress – “Compared with the supreme/ machines of death not yet unveiled/ but under wraps in my Platonic hangar/ Star Wars arsenal is just Disneyland.”

Three thousand years of grisly technology are enumerated~ “incendiaries/ as punctual as late-night Ovaltine . . . philosophy of burning when the sun/ jumps from a single stick into the city/ adhesive petrol on non-adhesive skin.”

We gods have served you well, we’ve made dead metal bright as any living eye.
(Vulcan’s Hardware)

Porter’s lines flicker with the patented language of high-tech : bleeper watches, Exocets, Instamatics, dolby, digitals and polaroid~ as Uncle Sam joins the fray:

Passing Out Parade and all the finny automobiles are
packed like fighters on a carrier’s deck; you can’t
get in to park. My boys and girls are graduating
in the Sousa’d sunshine, as up the eagle flies.
(The Field of Mars)

From Pearl Harbour and Korea to Indo China, Mars is not just on a treadmill – he’s escalating:

The fear the rich have of the poor! Such gods and boundaries!
Words are only words but they grow helmets
and surgeon’s robes, and then the sobbing starts
in hovels below the Presidential desk.
(The Aegis of Athena)

Porter’s history is not chronological but threads back on itself and Boyd’s drawings garble classical images with slouch hats and E= MC2 graffiti. In the context of the physics of annihilation the poet asks Is There Life on Mars? and then, with Mars Bars, Boyd depicts the god gorging on a human limb like a monster from Coya.

And where there is Thanatos there is Eros also. Except it is everywhere violated and degraded. Venus the Prom Queen is hitched to Vulcan for a time:

. . . Disease and beauty string along.
Beauty is disease, he said, and the only cure is business.
The world would be a madhouse if you couldn’t buy it
(Vulcan’s Marriage)

Elsewhere, in Venus Alone, Porter is almost Yeatsian – “She remembered all the shapes of love./ Nothing but supreme beauty could fuel a ten years’ war.”

Mars is a densely constructed set of poems, wittily accessible and gorily detailed. The rhythms of the verse are limber and satiric. Porter uses a variety of forms – clusters of sonnets, psalms, rippling quatrains and crisp prose:

After the cheered sailing, the becalming. After the bungled sacrifice, the fleet’s standing out to sea. After the dropping of the pilot, the horizon black with ships. Following the secret weapon, the storming of the city. The gerunds of the gods applaud dark prophecy: war on a Glen Baxter card.
(The Mini-Sagas)

He’ll even resort to bookish wit as in ISBN – “I lium S till B urns N icely,” but, like Auden, he doubts that all of poetry could equal a single photograph – of Troy burning, or corpses in a mass grave:

. . . poems tangle
their fingers in the wind
and say much less than they intend to.
(Mars Bars)

“Words are pretty flaky in a crisis,” Porter quips, but his stand their ground better than most. Mars is harsh but reasonable, its range and register voraciously imaginative. Porter’s use of the classical myth is relentlessly integrated with everyday electronic unrealities. Meanwhile, Boyd’s nightmarish drawings of evisceration, bestiality, sexual mutilation and nameless other brutalities wait in ambush between the poems with lumpy images which not even the poet’s fluent humanism can soothe. They make a terribly edifying combination.

Murray Bramwell

“Harsh but Reasonable” The Adelaide Review, No.58, December, 1988 p.23.
Also The Sydney Review, No.7, December, 1988, pp.24-5.

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