A review of Totem by Luke Davies

This is a very concentrated piece of work, a poem cycle if you will which touches on the biggest and most important themes – love, life and death in its broadest most cosmological sense, and the relationship between these. Keeping in line with Davies’ metaphysical themes, it is, in effect, a literary “mTheory“ (the unknown ‘theory of everything‘), which is to say, it gives the reader everything.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Totem
By Luke Davies
Allen & Unwin Australia
ISBN: 1741143489, A$21.95, Paperback , 96 pages, May 2004

“there was a gap and we entered it gladly.”

Luke Davies Totem consists of one thirty nine page poem, and forty ancillary poems, all interrelated, and all united by the main topic of a single love story. The imagery is intense, and highly personal, so much so that the reader at times feels a kind of guilty pleasure, as if they were the recipient of words clearly intended for someone else. Davies isn’t afraid to get right into the heart of the moment, to show his heart on his sleeve and turn consummation into something much grander – the “great gibbon of convergences,” or the central point at the moment of the big bang. Davies’ love is the union of the most mundane physical attraction with the greatest forces in the universe. It is both minute and expansive. This duality is what makes it so powerful. In the lengthy and almost epic “Totem Poem” Davies begins with a nod to “The Wasteland” with its spring imagery full of lilacs and pollen, its unreal city, its bits of French, and the hint that this gap in time occurs at the “violet hour,“ – that moment between wanting and receiving. The mundane is simply two human beings in love. A woman sits on a warm car bonnet: “How the bonnet was warm on your bottom! And the metal continued tick-ticking though the engine was off.” (5), a piece of a letter is read outloud, two lovers make love in a field and eat nothing but chocolate bars, drive along and watch cane toads in the car headlights, or miss each other while waiting for a departing airplane flight. But each of these things becomes something else, something grand — the source of all intelligence, all meaning in the universe.

Although “Totem Poem” is mystical, instead of Blake’s Heaven and Hell, we have dark matter — that moment of quiet before everything begins, the gap. The poem pivots around that gap. Davies creates metrical music by returning to his themes, the lusty monkey boy, the blue time of lilacs and the yellow time of pollen, girl of light, world-in-a-belly, and always the gap, entered. The poem is fecund, very rich and overflowing with metaphor and references from Greek (Minotaur, Asterion) and Hindu (Ganesh) mythology, the Bible, natural scenes, history, emotion, desire, time and space, condensed tightly into those thirty nine pages. At times, the heavy fecundity of the poem threatens to overwhelm the pages on which it has been printed:

World-in-a-belly. The Minotaur rounds the final bend,
Weeping with fear and elation. The ocean opens out.
He doesn’t move a muscle. It all goes in. Fine day for a brisk dip.
The fluttering of butterflies, glorifying his name,
Clustering around his astonished head, soaked in sunlight.

Heart of the world. From the yellow time of poppies
To the blue time of poellen, lament becomes epithalamium.
A gecko after rain means happiness. The sky has burst;
The air is wet with blossom. There is a gap; at every plateau,
Praise. A shining isomorphousness rings out –(38)

But Davies has a very strong grip on what he is doing and always pulls it back to the personal at the very moment when things threaten to overflow, to explode, static crackling:

Stop we will hold each other here.
I am listening. I am listening.

The Forty Love poems are all short, no longer than a page each, and although many of them were published individually, they were designed and written to work in conjunction with one another, as Davies says: “the whole book, the big poem and the 40 small ones, was conceived as a single interlocking, echoing, reverberating work.” While “Totem Poem” takes the concept of love in its most grand and encompassing sense, the poems explore the minutiae, moving in closer, to things like a woman’s nakedness, two lovers together, the sound of the wind, a kiss, a blossom in bloom, a sensation of loss, a dream, or physical beauty. These poems are like moons orbiting around the Jupiter or Saturn of Davies’ big poem. The smaller poems contains bits of the larger poems, whole lines, like “Stop we will hold each other here” (Clasp), images like the car still ticking after the engine has stopped, characters morphed such as the Girl of Light who becomes Sugar Lee, and concepts, such as the gap, “space inside a pulse.” The shorter poems are a little more casual than the longer one, with little jokes, a nod to Adam (the first man), the Sex Pistols, Shakespeare and reggae, but again, Davies manages the balance between light and heavy deftly, and gets away with the kind of juxtaposition that few other poets would be able to master.

Despite the jokes and the odd bits of popular culture, Totem is not a simple or an easy read. It requires sustained concentration, and ideally, a number of re-readings, so the deep layered textures of the words can be felt fully, the rhythm can come through clearly, and the many puns and connections teased out. This is a very concentrated piece of work, a poem cycle if you will which touches on the biggest and most important themes – love, life and death in its broadest most cosmological sense, and the relationship between these. Keeping in line with Davies’ metaphysical themes, it is, in effect, a literary “mTheory“ (the unknown ‘theory of everything‘), which is to say, it gives the reader everything. What could be more generous than that?

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