whiteoutWhite-out: selected published poems 1986-2016

By Saxby Pridmore

Lacuna, 2016

A$20.53 (Book Depository price, free worldwide delivery)

Reviewed by Geoffrey Lehmann

Saxby Pridmore is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tasmania and the author of text books and many academic papers. I know of only one other Australian poet who is a psychiatrist and that is Craig Powell. Powell was born in the same year as I was, 1940. Judging from references in his poems Saxby Pridmore was born about a decade later. He has a poem “1965”, where he says this was “my first year down in Brisbane/ From the bush”. 

It is not unusual for medical practitioners to become writers. William Carlos Williams, one of the greatest American poets wrote poetry and practised medicine for more than 50 years. Peter Goldsworthy, one of our best poets and a fine novelist, has had a dual career as a medical doctor and writer. Somerset Maugham and Conan Doyle are well known English examples, and two of the very greatest Russian writers, Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov, were doctors.

I subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s free poem a day internet service. As the Poetry Foundation is based in Chicago, the poems sent out are usually by Americans. Something I do when I click on the emailed poem is go to the poet’s biography. Many of the recent poets are graduates of creative writing schools, and are themselves teaching creative writing or professionally engaged in literature as academics. I find this depressing. Where do their poems come from if their only life is poetry?

This is not a problem for Pridmore. His poems emerge from his many other lives as father, son, husband, psychiatrist and observer of life. Many “selected poems” are presented in their order of composition (or the reverse). Pridmore has not done that here, although he has alerted to reader to the date of first publication and the name of the periodical. 

The 194 poems are arranged thematically and the book broadly starts with poems about family life, then has some graphic pieces drawn from his experience as a psychiatrist – several of his academic articles are about suicide – and finishes with more general poems. There is only an occasional reference to poetry.

Avoiding the order of composition approach was a good decision. Stylistically the poems are all cut from the same species of timber. The earliest poem was first published in 1986 and I cannot detect any great change in style since then. Pridmore’s style seems to leap like Athena fully armed and formed from the brain of Zeus, which may be appropriate for a psychiatrist poet.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that Pridmore decided to become a poet perhaps in his mid-thirties, and did not undergo the painful apprenticeship of the teenage poet who writes hundreds of awful poems, with a handful of sparklers, gradually finding her or his way (more often “her” now, than “his”) towards a personal and idiosyncratic style that reflects the styles of predecessors and grows beyond them. (Many of course don’t get there!)

The poems of poets who undergo this traditional apprenticeship in effect tell the reader: “Here I am, and this is how I am new and different.” The American poet Mark O’Brien spent almost all of his life in an iron lung. He begins one of his extraordinary poems: 

I scream

The body electric,

This yellow, metal, pulsing cylinder

Whooshing all day, all night

In its repetitive dumb mechanical rhythm.

O’Brien’s two opening lines refer to a famous line of Whitman’s: “I sing the body electric”, which in turn refers to Virgil’s famous “Arms and the man I sing”. 

Committing himself to poetry in mid-life without a great deal of literary baggage Pridmore’s poetry lacks this type of resonance. His poetry belongs very much to the here and now, and that is a strength as well as a limitation. In his very best poems he is able to write succinctly and sculpturally. Here is an example:

Shelling

A cockle,

halves locking

as a carapace, is washed up.

A child

walking, finding

this sarcophagus, picks it up.

The acquisition

of armour

by innocents, is growing up.

This is an almost perfect poem. (I’m inserting the humanities marker’s “almost”. You cannot get 100 out of 100 in the humanities, that is only for mathematicians.) I correct myself. It is a perfect poem. 

The title reverses expectations. My mother used to “shell the peas”, but here “shelling” refers to putting on a shell. The three verses fit together like the halves of the cockle shell, as first verse ends with a “washed up”, the next ends with “picks it up”, and the last verse ends with “growing up”. The poem reflects what is happening to the child. The reader’s horizon expands from shell, to child, to a tightly phrased aphorism that is a surprise ending. No word is wasted. Marvellous!

Another very good poem is this:

Harrington Richardson

Thunder from his gun

Sent a leaping hare

Spinning in the air.

He broke it. Smoke wisp with

The sting of fire-crackers

And lob-bobbed a new load in.

There was no knife.

Sandpaper fingers

Ripped the skin and belly open.

Holding the head and back legs

A single wobble-board flick sent

The guts into the grass.

He pushed one ear up inside his belt

And knotted them on top.

Now there was one each side.

He had them facing out, so

His trousers wouldn’t get grubby.

He was your grandfather.

In this case the humanity marker’s “almost” in front of “perfect” may be appropriate. The second verse is a bit obscure. “He broke it” I think refers to the gunshot breaking the hare, not the grandfather. The third line of this verse is a bit wilful. But the remaining four verses (as well as the first verse) are very, very good. The portrait of the grandfather with two hares hanging from his belt, one on each side, facing out, is memorable. “Grubby” is the mot juste. And the last line, with its surprise, that this tough-as-old-boots shooter is the grandfather of a person to whom the poem is addressed, and (presumably) the father-in-law of the poet, is a sudden injection of humanity.

The high point of this book is “Kursk”, a poem about the Russian naval disaster in 2000 when there was an explosion in the Kursk, one of the largest submarines ever built, the boat was disabled and 118 men died at the bottom of the Barents Sea. The poem begins:

We only have one torch.

We are keeping it off

Most of the time.

The following six verses are variations on the first verse, as Pridmore builds up the tension in simple, three line verses, about the men waiting for rescuers who do not come (while Putin was holidaying on the Black Sea – not a detail that Pridmore mentions). The poem finishes much as it began:

We have faithful wives waiting.

We only hope

The batteries won’t run out.

We only have one torch.

We don’t want to die

In the dark.

Kursk” has been anthologised in Les Murray’s The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2001-2010 and should continue to be an anthology piece in years to come.

Not every poem is at the level of humanity Pridmore achieves with “Kursk”. “Common psychiatrist” is a grumpy old man poem in which the speaker of the poem has a whinge about his patients. There are a good many poems that are expressions of irritation or a spur of the moment observation in which Pridmore is more interested in getting something off his chest than creating a poem. I have noticed this is often a defect in the work of poets who start writing later in life and have not undergone the traditional apprenticeship. Self-expression trumps craftsmanship.

Pridmore would have had a much better and more rigorous book if he had trimmed it down to 70 carefully revised poems rather than 194. That would have been a good score over 30 years for a person with a life outside poetry. T. S. Eliot and Phillip Larkin were effectively full time poets, but had a relatively small published output, partly because they were great discarders. 

The final poem in Pridmore’s book is a useful example of what I am saying, and is carelessly written. Its subject, but not the title of the poem, provides the title of the book. 

What a time!

Carbon paper blue, black, red and green

And stamps, Olympians, trains and Queens

All here well before me.

I survived

Carbon paper, but stamps’ll limp along

Long after I am gone.

I’m a soul brother of

White Out. I remember when that came in.

Now, it’s getting hard to get, and I’ve

got this filial feeling we’re going out together.

The last line of the first verse is awkward, the following line is a bit conventional, and “filial” is a mistake for fraternal. 

The third and final verse is:

My grandfather saw cars come in.

And I saw computers

The biggest stride we’ve ever strode.

What a time in history!

I want to be buried in a 3D printed coffin.

I have a problem with the third line of this verse. “The biggest stride”? What about fire, the wheel, plumbing, the internal combustion engine, antibiotics, to name just a few? Non-poets use the term “poetic licence”, but for many poets this is anathema. I also have a problem with the next line. Poets aim to present the “Ding an sich”, the thing in itself, rather than talk about their perceptions. The last verse would be improved by removing the third and fourth lines. Despite my criticisms, this is a delightful and intelligent poem and one of the 70 odd that are worth preserving.

I’ll finish on what I think is one of the high points of Pridmore’s book. You will notice that the lines of the second verse below are shorter, and rhyme, as the pencil has been sharpened.

The pencil sharpener

It’s a bit disconcerting, the pencil fits in snugly

But sticks out at an angle to the housing.

You check and reassured start twisting gently

Wood thinner than women’s underwear crawls over your fingers

And as long as there are no jerks or withdrawals

It continues a virgin ribbon.

The lead is shaved of powder to pin point tall

And the smell of Californian cedar is not forgotten.

It’s all in the position

Of a tiny blade

In a confined space.

Completing the mission

For which it was made

A salute to the human race.

The last three lines don’t quite live up to the precision of the three lines that immediately precede them, and could improve with revision. But this poem shows why Pridmore’s book is well worth reading, albeit with a blue pencil handy. 

Geoffrey Lehman is an award winning Australian poet – most recently the 2015 winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry for his anthology Poems 1957-2013