Liam Guilar – medievalist and modernist M. W. DAVIS

Broken medieval glass at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry

Liam Guilar – medievalist and modernist

Rough Spun to Close Weave

Liam Guilar, Ginninderra Press: Port Adelaide, Australia

M.W. DAVIS is captivated by the precise but passionate imagery of a poet who draws from the Middle Ages as much as the present

In the 2010 collection Nth Degree: New Australian Writing, there sit back to back two poems; the first on page 91, the second beginning on page 93. The first, ‘Anno 787’, has lines such as:

Schooled by the sea’s indifference,

by storms, shipwreck, winter’s famine;

lotteries of loss and pain that make a life,

we move amongst your settlements

In the second, ‘Black’:

pull my hair / hard

hairy as kelp / rubbery swaying

darkness could have splashed and rubbed

while skin sucked streetlamp

‘Anno 787’ is by Liam Guilar, included in Rough Spun to Close Weave; ‘Black’ is by Stuart Cooke, an esteemed poet and lecturer at Griffith University. We begin here to highlight a necessary revelation that comes from reading Guilar, especially in his third volume Rough Spun: it can feel alienated from modern poetics, just as we can. Mr Guilar, almost singly among his contemporaries, doesn’t ask his reader to experience his personality. We needn’t share his tastes or bend our own to appreciate his work. An English boyhood, tertiary Anglo-Saxonry, immigration, homesickness, latent patriotism – all of which we certainly do find on the page – we experience just as we might the persons of Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, or Robert Graves: that’s to say, we experience the infinite depths through their vessel. And, admire the vessel as we might, Mr Guilar’s poetry neither begins nor ends with Liam Guilar.

The sequence in Rough Spun moves beyond earlier stream of consciousness experiments, taking on a more chin-up character: his reveries aren’t linear, nor is every memory recounted with equal clarity. The longer poems, such as ‘A Love Story, Perhaps’ (26-30), grapple hopelessly with what’s ethereal; while the shorter, as with ‘A Craftsman Made These’ (60), are meditations on subjects and themes almost impossibly concrete for the lightness of its verse. A modern master of psychological realism (though not only this), the Guilar found in Rough Spun is coincidental. What we love is the vaster humanity evident in these poems.

Erotic poetry has always been difficult – and it’s increasingly so in our sex-obsessed culture. That’s not to judge the culture itself; only to say that what’s overbearing in public life can be difficult to present artfully in poetry’s exposure of private life. If sex is public, what can the modern poet possibly contribute? As with ‘Black Latex’ (see above), often it’s recourse to the perverse, the sadistic, and the taboo. Mr Guilar takes a much more arduous course, choosing instead to probe the mechanics of the brain on sex. In Part 3 of ‘A Love Story, Perhaps’ (28), he writes:

A cracked fouled leather glove

drifts along the inside of a thigh,

plays, lovingly, between these legs.

Don’t be ashamed if you’re aroused.

Once the tearing starts

There will only be reactions.

There’s no voyeurism in the poem, and nothing that looks to tread on toes for the sake of treading on toes. Sex isn’t presented here as profane, or as a holy thing profaned by over-exposure. It is treated like any other subject in Mr Guilar’s poetry – as he treats boating, saints, and poetry itself: something for the Muses to play with.

On the other hand, there’s the recollection in ‘My Grandmother’s Story’ (41), which begins,

We hadn’t been there long.

That night, we blew the candles out

said our prayers and went to bed.

Hobnailed boots on cobblestones

in the dark outside the window

heading down the garden to the shed.

There were no cobblestones

outside the window, just an

overgrown, untended flower bed.

The poem is gripping, easy, and follows the same playful rhyme scheme. It has the haunting suspense of the best of Poe, and yet never departs into the fanciful. I couldn’t bear to spoil any more for the reader, but this second-hand tale has all the charm the title promises: it’s a grandmother’s story, told in the days when we still went about the night by candlelight and said our prayers before bed. The poem is as much a reflection on our time – so inopportune for Gothic horrors – as it is an enjoyable story.

Readers of this journal, who so often remain willing to meet the ancients on their own terms, will certainly appreciate Mr Guilar’s willingness to serve as interpreter anyway. He never shies from his training as a medievalist, though neither does he over-saturate the chapbook with scholarly references. His ‘Presentiment of Englishry’ (40) on the 11th century custom of proving a fallen warrior was indeed English, including the Old English phrase Gehyrest Pu? – ‘Do you hear and understand and/or are you listening?’ And yet expect Mr Guilar to defy Beowulf and the Chronicles. Our poet isn’t so much a revivalist as he is, indeed, an interpreter. One could leave it at, ‘Guilar is looking for the human beings behind the myth’ – but that would be too easy. There’s none of the voguish exposé-style adaptation of the Classics that offer a more ‘authentic’ or ‘relevant’ telling. Guilar impresses one with an earnest appreciation for his Old English quasi-heroes, loving them because and in spite of their humanity. They’re bawdy and clever, real salt-of-the-earth battlers:

By what grounds English?

West Midlands, I. Not mercenary, prat, a Mercian! Of Penda’s  folk?

Gehyrest Pu? …

And in his easy movement in and out of time, Mr Guilar never thinks to idolize or condemns the ancients. He won’t come across one as a backward-looking Romantic or an uncomprehending Futurist:

Hatred handed down amongst the people

we defeated, and we reviled by those we did the fighting for.

So there are at least two interpretations of the Guilar-esque medieval the reader might follow: either the engaged, passive reporter on the front lines; or the aloof but affectionate Briton having a look up and down his family tree. And maybe he’s something altogether different. But the Quarterly’s readership should seize this occasion to take heart in knowing the labours of the ancients aren’t lost to all modern genius.

So many Western poets are still, like Ezra Pound a century ago, attempting to appropriate the concision of Asian lyricism to suit Western art. As it was then, the product tends to have an uneasy, Orientalist note, as though having been written uneasily, at arm’s length. Guilar’s tight verse has the benefit of emerging from and improving the Modernists’ project. His thoughts are complete and natural when written with such brevity, and still unmistakably influenced by precise Eastern forms and naturalist meditation, such as in “The River” (16):

The river joins the dots

encounters, moves on,

then forgets.

And in “The River Journey” (20):

The treeline

and the endless rain

donate another burden.

Those of us who covet that stoic, incisive movement – the magnificent collision of simple images that our native poets have never quite achieved – will have much to relish.

These are poems that will come back to you at unlikely moments if you’re ever seized with nostalgia while laying wallpaper, or are struck with déjà vu kicking along a dirty beachhead like an unhappy Stephen Dedalus. That’s the depth of thought Guilar impresses on the reader, and we don’t mind when it comes surging up again. By now they’re so familiar, anyway, they feel as though they’re only back where they belong.

M.W. DAVIS is Poetry Editor of the Quarterly Review

Rough Spun to Close Weave may be purchased from the publisher’s website:


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