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Walking in Stealth: After Pushkin

Walking in Stealth: After Pushkin
Noel Jeffs
MoshPit, 2022

Walking in Stealth is a book of meditation poems “written in the morning light with culture in mind” as Noel says in a prefatory note: “morning meditations as the sun rose over my right shoulder.” They are written “after Pushkin” – the great 19th-century Russian poet – largely, as I read it, because Noel saw a way to frame his meditations using the slightly truncated lines – rhyming tetrameters – that Pushkin used. He didn’t stay with them – perhaps the majority of the poems use different lines, many of them longer – but they were a way in, a starting point. Artists are always looking for starting points.

And so are humans. Ways “into themselves”: towards greater understanding, and, for believers, closer contact with God. There is a long history of religious meditation in verse, not only in English – George Herbert, Thomas Merton, William Everson – but in every language where people have framed and tried to understand a spiritual life. All poems, however, are meditations, attempts to frame understandings of the things that the poet doesn’t fully grasp, whatever is resistant, or evasive. Ways in.

Why the title, “Walking in Stealth”? It is, of course, a reference to walking quietly, to someone accustomed to thinking to themselves while the craziness goes on around them. But there is also, I think – whether consciously adopted or whether prompted by an unconscious link – a reference to the idea that the narratives we construct for ourselves are not always honest, that too often, they present not the truest, but the most convenient perspective – disguises we adopt because we think it offers the best chance of negotiating our gods and our societies without unwelcome confrontations. Hence the stealth: we are in fact hiding ourselves from ourselves – the parts, at least, that we don’t want anyone to see.

Sometimes, we come across people who seem to manage their less-than-credible personae as schtick – as a permanent part of their performance – who turn an implausible self-portrait into what seems like a successful life-story. No one ever quite believes them, and most find them very annoying – if not downright corrupt.

But while many accept that this is too strong an impulse in us, few are happy about it. One way of dismantling such stories is with poetry. Poetry – literature in general – is one of the ways society has invented for scratching around behind the public face, for peering beneath the mask, for sorting the trustworthy from the delusional. It deals in alternative viewpoints, personal touchstones, the quiet, the uncomfortable and the solid. Poems can be a way of being naked – or at least, less preposterously dressed – to ourselves, to our others, to our gods.

One can’t achieve this, however, simply by willing it to be so. We are complex creatures. We resist examination – even – perhaps particularly – self-examination. Some perspectives are stubborn and hard to shift. Some simply refuse to emerge into consciousness. So, when Noel says, “Tonight will I be chased through the mirrors again?” we know he is not talking about a light-hearted visit to the fun fair. When he says, “In morning light I begin again today beyond its pain”, there is already an assumption that the day will be something to struggle with, that as well as the willingness to push onwards, there is an expectation that it may not be easy. And one way that Noel has chosen to confront these difficulties is with poetry: “I felt as though consumed, and in my bed rolled/And I cast my bread upon the waters of writing.”

“I have need”, he says in another poem, “of my own words for release” – and while he is no doubt referring to the release occasioned by the creative impulse, I also read this as release from the forces that lead one to walk in stealth, that lead one away from the simplest and truest acknowledgements.

Poet Noel Jeffs at Lobby Boy Café in South Eveleigh on August 14 for the launch of his book, Walking in Stealth. Photo: Andrew Collis

At its most powerful, poetry is more than a release for the author, more than a means of exploration: it can offer a sense of fulfilment: “In poetry I am made complete/I am made complete in poetry/– In silence I mirror –/– In silence I am formed – worlds/Are realised.”

At other times, however, it is part of the ongoing battle with the forces within us that make life difficult: “We were a dessicated heart/opening its mind to souring aliveness/And beginning again as a serial run/in search of another good mood.”

While, overall, this is a poetry of a confrontation with that which does not resolve easily into words – of a silence listening to a silence – it always has a sense of a positive ground, of discoveries that occur to the author as if with a sense of grace: “It is sunshine in light to have stood a ground,” he says, or: “I trust in the blue heavens of today as through boldness was sung.”

About halfway through the book, the poems start beginning with a reference to the morning light: “In morning light it shines a daylight of readiness” or “In an early morning light an awakening to trust of life”.

The phrases operate as a kind of structural principle, a little pulse of upbeat the reader cannot ignore no matter what else happens after in the poem – a reference point, a reminder. It suggests that no matter what the difficulties of the human situation, there are dimensions beyond it that are reliable, unspoilt, permanently fresh. So, we are not at all surprised by the positive note the book ends on: “Touching my own solace in a country of queer and light/Touching my own substance of aliveness beyond claim.”

I’d like to finish by drawing your attention to the cover – a wonderfully balanced design by Sarah Davies to a concept of Noel’s. On the one hand, there is a man – the author – quietly walking – walking in stealth perhaps. We only see the externals: we have no idea what he is thinking. It is the front of the book – a rainbow and a magpie – that lets us see what is happening in his mind. The cover is a kind of modern illumination on the theme of body and mind.

Congratulations to everyone involved in the project, but above all to its author.

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