by Thomas Connelly
Interferon Psalms – Luke Davies (Allen & Unwin).
Wow and I have to say wow! Have just finished Interferon Psalms, and what a roller coaster ride of a read it was. We have been told, since the days of the Seven Sages, not to speak ill of the dead. This rule should be extended to include not speaking ill of the ill. It would take a brave one to search out pedantic flaws in this collection of poems.
I must confess. I confess I am too self obsessed to often raise my head to look around me. So when news of this collection of poems which had won the Prime Ministers Award seeped into my noodle, I was intrigued. Who the hell is this Luke Davies? What book could be so worthy? In many ways the less one knows about an author and the genesis of the work the better. This collection is an exception, I read the first page or two and then did a quick goggle search before returning. In medias res. These poems, reading as they do like a strange diary, begin in the middle of things. With no exposition or introduction the unsuspecting reader is taken by surprise, as they are instantly plunged into a world of scaling skin, of beds adrift on an ocean of nausea. The reader is flung into a world noisy with laboured breathings and muffled heart beats, a world vibrating with pleadings and arguments to the various Gods and sciences. Alternately mocking and crying. Transcendent and abyssal in turns.
For there are times in a persons life when all that is solid melts in the air, and one is compelled to face the real conditions of life. Luckily for me I have not had this experience of my own mortality. This collection of poems attempts to describe and to make sense of such a indescribable and insensate time. Like a stone, cold and hard, unwilling to explain. The author, having damaged his liver after years of heroin use, is undergoing a course of interferon. This can be seen as a type of chemotherapy, and has many of the same side effects, including nausea and vomiting, weight and hair loss, depression, insomnia and more. Depending on the type of illness the treatment can last as long as 48 weeks.
This was the context of this work. These Psalms read like a diary of suffering, and as such the writing is raw and emotional, at times seemingly random. Parataxis. The free verse style (what awful payment of health did this free verse extract?) matches the subject matter. Having spent a couple of days in hospital for a minor operation a few years ago, I can understand how the jagged, kaleidoscope of images flowing from pain to brain to page seems the most authentic poetic road to travel.
Glancing at previous reviews of this prize winning work, I came across a series of comparisons including Eliot and Rilke. Discussions of the metaphysical poets. I have no argument with this line of argument. Indeed this seems to be one of those works that forces the reader to find what the reader wants to find. I for one found some Burroughs, some Rimbaud. I found Ezra Pound, The Cantos without the self-pitying fascism. An insomnia of shapes and fragments and names and thoughts pass and dance the pages, from Atomists and Buddhists to San Juan de la Cruz to pop sound bites and name checks via the forms of Nietzsche,. One can dip in to this book and respond in their own individual manner. The atoms roar, wheeling and frictionless.
Strophe and antistrophe. However, not wanting to speak ill of the ill, this collage of words is a strength, and like all good strengths it is also a weakness. The book is complicated, and it is hard to decide how to proceed. To try to read it all in one great rush of poetic inspiration is too much to bear. The raw power and the huge emptiness is wearying. The thousand year silences, the slow glacial movement, scrapping and thrusting up of moraines, as seasons and years flow, the tectonic slowness followed by the sudden terrible destruction, the scalp crust by crust flaking and drifting along the wind full of outer space, can be quite confronting. I found myself suffering a serious of disturbing dreams concerning my Mother and her chemo treatment and subsequent death. If, on the other hand, one were to take small readable bites, one day at a time, one poem after another, one would risk losing the breadcrumb thread of the diary nature of the work, one would risk diluting the throbbing pain and insistent pushing from below of flowers (white cyclamen) that force their way up through the cracks underfoot.
Get a copy, read it, find out for yourself. This is book that does not offer answers, often it does not even ask questions. Music, like this collection of Psalms (why do I want to call this book Interferon Blues?) flows ever new waters of images and emotions. It will not change your life, but it will extend your empathy. As a uniquely poisoned self has been ripened and served up with baby potatoes and season vegetables, it would be churlish to refuse to devour the offering.
Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow