Lehmann, Geoffrey (John)
LEHMANN, Geoffrey (John)
Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 20 June 1940. Education: Shore School, Sydney; University of Sydney, B.A. 1960, LL.B. 1963: qualified as solicitor 1963; masters in law 1982. Career: Practicing solicitor, Sydney, 1963–76. Lecturer in law and tax, Commerce Faculty, University of New South Wales, Kensington. Member, Australia Council Literature Board, 1981–84. Awards: Grace Leven prize, 1966, 1982. Address: 8 Highfield Road, Lindfield, New South Wales 2070, Australia.
The Ilex Tree, with Les A. Murray. Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1965.
A Voyage of Lions and Other Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson.1968.
Conversation with a Rider. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1972.
From an Australian Country Sequence. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1973.
Selected Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1976.
Ross' Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1978.
Nero's Poems: Translations of the Public and Private Poems of the Emperor Nero. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1981.
Spring Forest. North Ryde, New South Wales, Collins/Angus and Robertson, 1992; London, Faber, 1994.
Collected Poems 1957–1996. Port Melbourne, William Heinemann Australia, 1996.
A Spring Day in Autumn. Melbourne, Nelson, 1974.
Australian Primitive Painters. Brisbane, University of Queensl and Press, 1977.
Taxation Law in Australia, with Cynthia Coleman. Sydney, Butterworths, 1989.
Children's Games. North Ryde, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1990.
The Balloon Farmer (for children). Milsons Point, New South Wales, Random House Australia, 1994.
Sky Boy (for children).Milsons Point, New South Wales, Random House Australia, 1996.
Editor, Comic Australian Verse. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1972.
Editor, with Robert Gray, The Younger Australian Poets. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1983.
Editor, The Flight of the Emu: Contemporary Light Verse. North Ryde, New South Wales, Angus and Robertson, 1990.
Editor, with Robert Gray, Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century. Port Melbourne, Victoria, W. Heinemann, 1991.*
Critical Studies: "A Governor, a Farmer, an Emperor: Rome and Australia in Geoffrey Lehmann" by Michele Morgan, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), May 1983; "Geoffrey Lehmann's Nero Poems" by Michael Sharkey, in Quadrant (Sydney), June 1984; by Barbara Williams, in her In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Rodopi, 1998.
Geoffrey Lehmann comments:
In some of my earlier poems I tried to come to terms with my family. In others I found the voice of a Roman governor of Africa a congenial vehicle to explore the inevitable failure of each of us to control our own minds, as well as the natural and political world we inhabit. In these poems dolphins and lions symbolize the other world, the separate consciousness of other living creatures that continues to elude the romantic.
My two most recent books, Ross's Poems (my own, but not my publisher's spelling) and Nero's Poems, differ sharply in the voice of their narrator. Ross's Poems employs the first-person voice of a living person, Ross, an Australian farmer who lives near Cowra and uses the incidents of his life as a vehicle for a view of life that is partly his and partly mine. Where possible, actual names have been used, but some of the poems are transcribed out of my experience into Ross's life. Ross is the observer of limits, a lover of the surprises, the minutiae, and largeness of life, a conservationist who is skeptical about his own conservationism.
Nero's Poems purports to be translations from the poems of the Roman emperor and aims at historical and psychological accuracy. Nero rejects limits and conventional decency and is completely urban. A number of poems celebrate gardens, aqueducts, eating with friends, and urban life as a counterweight to the corruption and moral disintegration of his world. I have tried to preserve the contradictions of his character and rescue him from the aristocrats who detested a populist emperor and wrote the history books.
Since Nero's Poems I have written more poems through the voice of Ross, also personal, imagistic poems about single parenthood.* * *
Though retrospective, Geoffrey Lehmann's spare, terse, deceptively simple poems are not mere exercises in nostalgia. Both the celebrations of Australian country lives in The Ilex Tree, Conversation with a Rider, and Ross' Poems and the imaginative re-creations of antiquity in A Voyage of Lions and Nero's Poems use the past as a vehicle for defamiliarizing and reflecting on the present. And it is perhaps to this temperamental need to view life with cool detachment (Lehmann is a lawyer by profession) rather than to any lack of concern that one should attribute the absence of burning contemporary issues in his poetry. In "The House" he characterizes himself as "favouring ironical minds who grasp ideas /But are not ruled by them." Wars and ideologies are incidental to the abiding vitality of the human spirit, which unites emperors, popes, painters, explorers, farmers, and gardeners in democratic fellowship across time and space.
An important group of poems with Australian settings provides brief vignettes of the lives of Lehmann's immediate family and forebears—his maternal grandfather practicing medicine in a "hard, tropical former mining town"; his paternal grandfather returning to die "a blackened ghost" after erecting a church in New Guinea; his fun-loving and "rumbustious" father "working out betting systems" or mending watches; his "ample" aunt affronted at being urged to "come on in, and help the tide to rise." An earlier tradition of poems on explorers, including Kenneth Slessor's "Five Visions of Captain Cook" or Francis Webb's "Leichardt in Theatre," is thus displaced by a more personal yet more representative mythology of unsung settler heroes. The humanizing impetus behind such celebrations is encapsulated in Lehmann's tribute to the "Welsh Australian" painter Lloyd Rees:
Europe respects the vision of old men,
But in Australia our dry heart still haunts us,
The inland rivers petering into sand,
And we forget our past and mock at ghosts.
But you have grown with age, ripened like Europe,
Giving your greatest harvest at the end,
Rich autumn of far outlines, smoky orchards, houses,
Time that remembers, landscape which is man.
There is an almost Flemish reverence for homely detail in Lehmann's portraits of a vintner "in hock-pale light" serving "bandicoot cooked in red wine" or a Chinese gardener with "handshake light as a ghost" carrying "bore water" to "parched chrysanthemums and roses."
Men are more frequently portrayed than women in these poems, country scenes take pride of place over the city, and though there are memorable interiors around glowing pressure lamps, Lehmann seems especially responsive to the outdoor world of vast expanses and "whispers inaudible to city people." In "The Trip to Bunyah" a sense of space is evoked simply by describing the "land-rover jolting and banging" through an ever changing landscape, its "lonely headlights fumbling." Ross (of Ross' Poems) by his ironbark fire imagines a vertical line passing through the roof and the moon's molten center to the stars. "Student Love," a psychologically perceptive retrospect on a relationship that failed, begins,
Journeys, highways, railway stations, nights
Of blue glass, highflying birds and stars and sheoaks,
Two months of journeys each week-end to meet
Love aching from three hundred miles away.
For Lehmann space, like time, puts the human struggle in perspective, and the stars are the ultimate reminders that, once deceased, "we have no message, only that we lived /And now are nothing, lights, dwindling star voices." Creeds to Lehmann are as suspect as ideologies, for "there is no absolute rose"; "space is immanent with roses" because what is miraculous is the richness and beauty of life itself. Part of Lehmann's humanist ideal, which in some respects is very Australian, seems to be embodied in the character of Ross himself as revealed in his ruminative monologues—unpretentious, self-reliant, kindly, wryly humorous, capable of compassion for the underdog, conscious that "each year we get further away / from the Spring Forest, / the original text," romantically convinced of the value of the simple things in life.
Though less popular, Lehmann's historical poems are often more imaginatively daring than his Australian sketches. Notable among the early "Meditations for Marcus Furius Camillus, Governor of Africa"—where the analogy with provincial Australia is no more than tacit—are the poems that speculate about the superior intellect of dolphins, again revealing Lehmann's interest in the natural world and the perspective it affords on human nature. Poems like "Cellini" and "Pope Alexander VI" are elegant, amusing dramatic monologues in the tradition of Robert Browning. In Nero's Poems, a more ambitious and not wholly successful venture, Lehmann draws on evidence from Tacitus and Suetonius of Nero's populism, philhellenism, and interest in the arts to suggest that he was a "more attractive human being beneath the scandalous surface" than usually assumed, indeed something of an "uomo universale." The imaginary portrait of the emperor as artist built up in these often witty monologues of varying length is correspondingly complex, indirectly reflecting different facets of the author's own artistic credo. Most frequently Nero wears the mask of a Nietzschean "Dionysius the Second" who "resists the moralist" and cries, "we give ourselves to change." But in his "Advice to Young Poets" the recommendation to "revise your inspirations"—as did Nero with his own poems, according to Suetonius—strikes a more Apollonian note, and in his "Advice for Emperors" the call to "single out / your true from your false wants" sounds like Lehmann's other alter ego, Ross.
As poetry, these lighthearted vignettes of Roman aqueducts, wine bars, wrestlers, and jockeys and of Nero's relations with his mother, mistresses, and homosexual lovers are not without charm, but the fact that all is seen through Nero's eyes tends, as in minor Elizabethan sonnet sequences, to make for monotony and a sense of flagging contrivance. As evocations of a bygone era they suffer in comparison with Lehmann's Australian retrospects in that, for all his scrupulous regard for historical accuracy, they rarely generate a sense of the spirit of place, of a Rome, for instance, where "lonely migrants pace." Credulity is also strained at times by the vernacular idiom: "If our Roman bakers baked bread / as fresh as her cunt, I'd eat bread all day." In his introduction Lehmann claims to be attempting to be true to Nero's psychology as he sees it, and there are certainly some chillingly insightful moments in the volume:
Down on the beachfront at night savage hands drag
me into the shadows.
Each time I ask,
do they bring joy or the knife?
But convincing portrayals of evil genius are rare in imaginative literature, and though Nero's Poems returns us to the Roman historians with renewed curiosity, one also has the sense that in Lehmann's portrait the psychopath has been largely eclipsed by the larrikin.