Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan reviews ‘thesholds’ by Philip Radmall 

Published in Compulsive Reader 13 Jan. 2023

The idea of poets situating themselves in the realm of the liminal and navigating the often ambiguous transition between states is not new, but remains powerful. ‘Poetry,’ wrote Heaney back in 1988, ‘is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released.’¹

As its title suggests, Radmall’s third poetry collection positions itself firmly in this tradition. thresholds, published at the end of 2022 by Ginninderra Press, is an elegant collection of thirty-three free verse poems exploring precisely this state of being simultaneously ‘summoned and released’ across a variety of situations, both geographical and metaphysical.

From the industrial heartland of England’s West Midlands, where the poet was born, to the northeastern United States, to suburban Sydney caught in a moment of full-blown pandemic lockdown; from a grandfather’s wrestling with post-war trauma, to an immersion in the solace of nature, to a profound contemplation of Italian artists of the Renaissance—the thresholds of the collection urge, at times buffet, the poet to find equilibrium in a mutable world.

This is explicit in the opening poem, where the poet tells us:

Wherever I am, I am a brief fixed point
in blustering air, trying to get a bearing…(“At the Roadside on Skye”, 7)

As the poems unfold, we find ourselves coaxed to the cusp of experience, captivated by the poet’s rhythmical exploration of both situations and his own responses to them as, time and again, he takes his reckoning. ‘Happenings’ is one such instance:

Because we could find solace in the sea
we drove out from the city and met up with
a vast stretched arc of shoreline and sweep
of sky, that we might get breadth and foresight
of ourselves, to be opener and unfamiliar
again. (“Happenings”, 24)

This ability to make us, as readers, ‘opener and unfamiliar’ is one the poet exploits deftly, peeling away any preconceptions we may have until we, too, see and feel his world anew. In part, this is down to his style. A novelist as well as a poet, Radmall’s poetry has many prose-like traits, in particular a freedom from rhyme or metre, heavily enjambed lines, and the hovering arc of a narrative. It also exhibits a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humour, as in this portrayal of the poet’s own photograph:

… that looks
to be a selfie of a middle-aged man
alone on a balcony in a canvas chair
writing a poem, vainly seeking
tranquillity in recollection. (“Recherché”, 41)

The sense of being on the outside, looking in—familiar to many emigrants—permeates a number of poems, notably ‘Visitant’, where the poet’s experience of travelling through the crowded, predominantly Catholic section of West Belfast prompts a similar memory of feeling himself a ‘false guest’, this time in Australia’s vast Northern Territory:

  I stood
amongst others, tight-woven as Irish knit, the shamrocked
drink-spilled carpet sticky as blood; a quiet visitant under
pictures of Provisionals, the Virgin, the naked Saviour.
By a rock face in Kakadu I stood under a 4,000-year-old
image of the creation, an earth-painted frieze of ancestors
and spirit-gods forming out the world in its Dreamtime. (“Visitant”, 27)

The internal journeying at the heart of the poems, while not overtly religious, is often couched in language that is unmistakably spiritual. In this poem, for instance, set like many at the coastline, the simple act of stepping into the shallows and skimming stones becomes no less than a quest for atonement:

As I stepped out into that cold, incoming sea
and let it calmly wash my feet, as if of guilt,
and bathe them in its purging surf, I watched
my skimmed stone dip and rise agnostically
across the surface… (“The North Sea”, 33)

Occasionally the poet strikes a more assertive tone, as in this cryptic declaration:

The purpose of my being here
is the faith put in me. (“Four Riddles”, 42)

Usually, however, Radmall’s work is marked by restraint, and a humility rare in contemporary poetry. At times, despite the lyric assurance of his lines, his voice comes across as almost timorous:

There are acres sometimes between what I see and understand…(
Artwork, XVIII”, 64)

His admission at finding himself overcome by his own near-inability to contemplate one of the great early Italian Renaissance paintings eloquently articulates what many of us may feel but struggle to put into words:

But what can I know of any of these lives
before me – their passions, their pathos, their dooms –
other than to look and question and suppose,
when I am full only of doubts and imaginings…(“On Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ”, 19)

The creative impulse remains a lively source of inspiration for the poet. It is no accident that by far the longest poem in the collection, and arguably its standout, is a formidable and sustained meditation on the making of art, inspired by his artist brother. One of the few poems in the collection formally structured in tercets, ‘Artwork’ elegantly depicts the relationship between the brothers and their respective languages:

me, grappling the hard bodies of words; you, wrestling the paint’s
tough muscle…(“Artwork XI”, 57)

The poem goes further, encapsulating the visceral quality in painting, and the brutal nature (to the poet, at least) of the artist’s assault on his canvas:

The room felt like a murder scene of paint after he had done
his work there. From outside, on the stairs, coming to it slowly,
you could already smell the paint on the air; a first telling,

still needing to be made sense of; the itch of it
in the nose, the eyes; the faint touch on the skin like it had
breath. Then, in the room, the blatant evidence:

the pallet’s mess, a massacre of colour and slaughtered matter;
paint on the brushes and table and on his clothes ; paint spattered
over everything like a spent, molested force…(“Artwork XIII”, 59)

The poet does not shy away from the emerging divergence between himself and his brother, nor its darker implications:

… where I hankered sharp truths, I saw more and more

how you lurked on the cusps; the blurred edges where things become
disturbed, unclear…(“Artwork XXI”, 67)

Significantly, art literally frames this collection; its cover shows a detail from the poet’s brother’s gloriously warm, animated oil painting of a churning sea—appropriately, as water is a presence in many of the poems. The clutch of reddish hues off-centre towards the base is unexpected, and raises the possibility of the presence of a slightly unsettling element.

Indeed, for all its quiet lyricism and unhurried rhythms, thresholds, like all great poetry, is willing to disturb, engaging with the big questions most of us come to ask at some point: why are we here, and what we are to make of our lives? The cumulative effect of Radmall’s collection suggests that we may find, if not an answer, perhaps release in the very act of contemplating such questions, especially in the context of the natural world. Typically mellifluous and melancholy, the final poem’s closing lines, written after the poet’s brother’s funeral, are heavy with portent for the reader as well as for the poet:

I watch the late mist coming and the heights
of these fells closing into their own introspection, and the light
softening against it all, and press to the lichen cold and wait for instruction. (“Fells”, 89)

This is a subtly written and powerful collection, simultaneously summoning us to become aware of the thresholds in our own lives, and implicitly proposing a form of release which begins and ends in our own hearts and minds.

¹ S Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, Faber & Faber, 1988, pp. 107–8.

thresholds can be purchased directly from the publisher: https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php

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