‘Prometheus’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

The subject of Prometheus has appealed to poets from the Greeks onwards. Though Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ is probably the best known poem on the subject, many poets have been drawn to the figure of the trapped and suffering Titan—Byron, Goethe, Ted Hughes (Prometheus on his Crag) and Robert Lowell (translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound).   

Australia’s vast continental landscapes and devastating seasonal bushfires provide both the scenic and metaphysical songlines from which the adjective Promethean could draw a particular music and imagery. 

Here is the opening of my poem ‘Prometheus’. Three voices are dramatised. Prometheus’ speaking voice is caught between a blank verse narrative and lyrics that explore the fire imagery inherent in the subject matter.

                Prometheus

Leaving the past,
Its histories and mutterings,
Now our pitch
Rears from feral backblocks.
So, here in limbo,
At adequate height,
Fate abandons you, leaving
Hollow triumphs
And the dreck of a century,
Freeways ringing oceans
While see-saw skin
Sexes the packed minutes.

Look at the harbour unreeling—
Its cloud wedding cake on a cracked mirror sheen,
Oxygen feeding furnaces,
Strengthening iron,
Industrial shift work stretching
Towers from tired limbs.
We stare at the brilliant sky
Hoping for something large,
A handle to grip
Each failure
Summoning bad grace.
Then at one zone of light,
Near opalescent sea,
On a bare rock, in a hard place,
Prometheus is faxed,
Myth amid technology,
Linkages of lyric,
Monologues and fragments,
Vague beginnings, endings,
Not old certainties.

A superhero skimming heights
Made marvellous by NASA,
Limbs carved to silhouette,
Olympian gesturing?—
Prometheus has dropped
Poses meant for dominance,
Though trapped,
Still glorying in a mood
Named euphoric,
Data banks in stacks.
But there is too much pain
To be contained by formulae
Or measured with an ECG,
Too much inexplicable,
Not defined by chemistry,
Unpaginated nerves
Rippling near texts.

   If I speak, it’s clear
   that I must speak
   with the voice of nations
   and bestiaries—
   I’ve seen the end result
   of evolution’s tramp
   and known cruelty,
   that rational excess
   when species felt the needle plunge.
   Politicians shouted slogans
   too long with no end
   except their re-election,
   true democrats
   left high and dry,
   justice dumped,
   speculators salting
   loot on harbour shelves.

      Lightning highlights clouds,
      Thunder rattles stairs,
      In the bedroom shadows crowd
      Round a loving pair.

      A bolt descends theatrically,
      Attracted to their heat,
      Severs bodies open
      Under ruined sheets.

      Then rain pours through the tiles,
      On this crumpled couple—
      Morning sky is spread
      With cloud-limbs reassembled.

Here is our astrology—
Using words to sew up faults,
Coming to strength
When the shining ends
Of dreaming have sprung up.
There lies within us nature coiled
Which we can bring with splendour
Or quickly finish off;
Waiting at our end
Are a million crackling stars.

      Fire on hills, wheels of light exploding,
      Sheet flame folding valleys and bright birds
      Caught in flying ashes, brought to the bronze moulding
      Of these channels surging through the grass.
      Snake writhing on a log, cattle scorched and sculpted,
      Flickering as a furrow where the steel is poured,
      Hunter trapping fauna in a glowing comer,
      Branch and tree trunk splitting in the branding heat.

      Then the flapping wall of flame perishes with windfall,
      Leaving grey abstractions after purgatorio,
      Stink of soot and stripped design, black predominating.
      Through the haze a form escapes into midnight tremor;
      Madman with a box of matches, grinning at the night,
      Weird with all that reddening he runs to start new fires.

   My charity must search
   beyond failed intent.
   Of course, if you’re content
   with defeat and are smug
   with your own self-hate,
   you’ll never know
   more than curiosity
   for suffering, or sympathy
   for disgrace.
   After disillusion
   I take the world in tow,
   sparking hope again.
   To some I’m naive,
   a philosophe
   who’s lost the drift of things.
   Still, I’ve this to give:
   passion, not knowledge,
   feeling, not incision.

      Bars that turn blue
      In the cooling tank room
      Menace the chocolate box snow.

      Are you excited
      Or just plain frightened
      By this victorious show?

      Yellow cake loads
      Will flatten the roads
      In a manner that’s rather gung ho.

      One flash and you’re ash,
      Done your whole dash,
      Buried alike friend and foe.

      Just transfer the lot
      To the stars you clot
      And the problem will soon disappear.

      A war up in space
      Will not cinder the race—
      It’s goodbye to your out-of-date fears!

Alternative dazzle
As jumbos knife the sky,
Land distanced by the roar
Of engines burning fuel,
Your wanderlust soon gutted,
Lying on a foreign bed, thinking
Of that prize: thunder on the skin;
In that noise the turbulence
That shadowed every pastoral,
Rippling motel rooms,
Ribbing beachtime games.
You wonder then
If beauty lasts;
Its harness sometimes drags
To seaweed in a trench
Or flags stuck on a peak,
Laundering politely,
Only gathering in
When loving is the cause—
Orchids hanging in glass shed stacks,
A stretch of muscle pushing at your own,
An um whose figures freeze up rushing time.

Cont. . . .

Written 1985–1987 Published Such Sweet Thunder 1994 49-64

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