I’ve just finished reading Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies. This collection of poems is an in-depth read, not to rushed, but savoured instead. A meditation on what these poems actually mean is needed to be able digest them whole, for they are a complete wholesome meal made up of syntax and emotion. And after reading them, the realisation that Davies has taken a knife and slashed open his heart, bleeding out emotion profusely onto the page, makes the poems all the more seductive. Well, to me anyway!
In my poetry class, I chose Davies as the subject for my study of a contemporary poet. I was not disappointed; he is an inspiration and the most amazing poet, his ‘Totem poem’ from Totem a book of love poems. changed the way I think about poetry. Here is a part of what I learnt…
Luke Davies is an Australian contemporary poet, acclaimed novelist and screenplay writer. Born in 1962, and raised in Sydney, NSW, he became interested in reading and writing at a young age; and at thirteen, he decided he wanted to be a poet and a novelist. When he finished school he attended the University of Sydney and earned a Bachelor of Arts, publishing his first book of poems, Four Plots for Magnets (1982), while still a student.
Davies has worked as a truck driver and teacher.
His more recent poetry collections include Absolute Event Horizon (1994), Running With Light (1999), Totem (2005), a collection of love poems, and Interferon Psalms (2011).
Davies also has released two chapbooks: The Entire History of Architecture… and other love poems (2001) and Feral Aphorisms (2011). His poetry has been described as ‘mystical, cosmic, lush and humorous’. He often references contemporary figures and culture in his poems.
In 1997 Davies published his first novel, Candy, with great success; he went on to further accomplishment, in 2006, co-writing—with Neil Armfield—the script of Candy for the adaptation of the film of the same name, starring Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish and Geoffrey Rush. The film won awards from both the Film Critics Circle of Australia and Australian Writers. He has also written two screenplays, Division 7 and Merlo.
He has also written two other novels: Isabelle the Navigator (2000), and God of Speed (2008). As well, he has contributed essays and reviews to magazines and newspapers. Since 2008, Davies has been living in Los Angeles.
Even though Davies has experienced great success with his novels, and screenplays, he considers himself to be a poet foremost. When he was just eight, he read John Steinback’s Canary Row, and was so inspired he wrote his first poem. He describes the discovery of poetry like opening a door to a wonderful palace, which he’s been lucky enough to be walking around in ever since. In an interview with The Age he said he is often bemused people don’t realise he is a poet because ‘this is the most important thing that defines me’.
Davies reads voraciously, often foraging in science journals in search of material for his poems; the realms of subject matter he visits are: archaeology, geology, cosmology, history, comparative mythology, fiction and physics: all of them make appearances in his poems as the subjects themselves or, most often, as metaphors.
- In 2004 Davies won the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for poetry.
- Running With Light won the Judith Wright Poetry Prize at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2000.
- His collection of love poems, Totem, won the 2005 South Australian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry; the Age’s Poetry Book of the Year Award; the overall Age Book of the Year Award and the Grace Leven Poetry Prize 2004; the Age Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize (2004); and the John Bray Award for Poetry (2006), a rare achievement for a book of poetry, which helped set him up as a contemporary Australian poet.
Davies is of the rare phenomena of writers who have been able to live off his earnings and as well pay his rent.
Interferon Psalms has thirty-three poems of varied length and concentration; the language is archaic and modern at the same time. Davies describes the book as thirty-three psalms on the face of god, used as a medi-evil reference. He underwent interferon treatment for his liver, where the side effects from the treatment were really awful; this book of poetry was his way of making something good out of something horrible.
The poems in this book contain metaphors relating to physics, space and time. On first reading, I thought most of the poems were about religion and god, but I think they’re the opposite of that, in that, the poems appear to be about the big bang theory, quantum physics, and the structure of the earth, all interrelated with the themes of lost love, the redemptive power of medicine, and the rebellion of one’s own body.
I have chosen ‘Psalm 25’, from Interferon Psalms, and ‘Totem Poem’, from Totem, a book of love poems. Totem Poem is a thirty-nine page, 525-line poem about passionate love, which is followed by forty shorter poems; the totem poem, and the forty shorter poems, all interrelate around the same story of love. Davies says these poems are ‘immediate and erotic but also extremely formal and mannered’.
Analysis of poems
Due to copyright, I can only show 10% of the poem, if you’d like to read the rest of it—and it’s pretty long, but well worth the read—click here.
(The last part, and my favourite part.)
The whoosh of whisky grass; something had been and gone. We woke. Ganesh was gone, and every bull and bull-god, gone. How change became good fortune, how love streamed. In the yellow time of pollen, and the honeysuckle blooming, the preciseness of the world came flooding in.
Open your eyes, love looks back, cipher of every hieroglyph, bedroom thick with foliage, morning buds enormously from dream, from flight-paths of the fruit-search, from bed a ship of flowering abandoned to the pollen winds; how best to taste the plumness of today? I’ll speak my tongues
against your breathlessness. The good-humoured power of one’s personal bear, and all that honey, God almighty, honey everywhere. Something has lifted the lid off the labyrinth. We get to be every puppy, every beast, all the animals one by one, every day a feast. At last we start eating the food, not just the menu.
Something has lifted the lid off the labyrinth. As if that hot-breathed contact with your lips were a kind of Spring. The sky takes on its brightness like a skin. Love protects the twinned and the untwinned, the set-upon, the cast-adrift, unmoored, unhooked, unleashed, unhinged.
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 pollen, 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—
the deep peal of bells and how the heart would hold the day. We have tumbled through the years to meet it. You say laughing Taste it Taste it. Static crackles in your hair, lightning in your breast. Stop we will hold each other here. I am listening, I am listening.
Analysis of Totem Poem
The title suggests it would be about something that relates to a Totem, which can be a symbolic carved object that tells the story of the tribes, or families connected to it—sometimes it does this in a metaphorical way.
The first line is long and tells a story in itself: ‘In the yellow time of pollen, in the blue time of lilacs’ suggests spring time; the yellow time may mean a happier time; ‘the pollen and the lilacs’ could be a reference to the poem Wasteland by T.S Elliot, because these are used throughout both poems; ‘world-in-a-belly’. I’m not sure about that bit, but it is a recurring image throughout the poem, and to me, creates the image of a pregnancy. ‘In the blue lilac weather, she had written a letter: You came into my life really fast and I liked it’, completes the first stanza, this part of the story, showing us, it’s about a woman he has fallen in love with, and the man’s fondness for her.
In the second stanza, ‘there was a gap and we entered it gladly’ there is a gap in time— it is that space in between wanting something and receiving it. It’s like the gap—the silence, we sometimes—have between our thoughts.
Several times throughout the poem, Davies makes reference to Ganesh, who is a Hindu god and the patron god of writing.
In the first stanza of the last group, Ganesh is gone, and every bull, and bull-god is gone. (‘The bull, or bull-god’ could be the Minotaur.) And change has now become good fortune. ‘In the yellow time of pollen, and the honeysuckle blooming, the preciseness of the world came flooding in’ could be alluding to the idea that now the fog, or dream-stage of ‘love’ has lifted, the world can be seen as it really is.
In the fifth to last stanza, we have ‘At last we start eating the food, not just the menu’ which, I think, is a reference to Joseph Campbell’s idea that to take metaphors literally, as religion does, for example, and to take the stories and the myths as doctrine, is to miss out on the beauty of the myth; it’s like eating out at a restaurant and eating the menu instead of the food!
In the last line of the second to last stanza, the word ‘isomorphousness’, which means ‘iso = same, and morphic = shape/form’ describes the sound of the bells and goes on to describe ‘how the heart would hold the day’. To me this means, after the experience of love, everything feels as though it has changed, in a way, but everything is still, relatively, the same.
The last line ‘I am listening, I am listening’, I think, again, alludes to living in the moment.
The imagery in the Totem Poem is drawn from the cosmos and nature – flowers and falcons, cockatoos and cane toads, sparrows and stars, planets and pollen, monsters and mastodons. Davies has drawn from Hindu Gods, and has mythologised about the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. The poem is a celebration of love, and an intoxicating portrayal of the journey through love using all those topics throughout the theme of love, and as metaphors.
Analysis: Interferon Psalm 25
Psalm 25: Interferon Psalms
The title is interesting because ‘interferon is a protein released by animal cells, usually in a response to a virus, and it has the property of inhibiting virus replication’. ‘Psalm’ is a sacred song or poem. So, to me, the title suggests irony because even though interferon itself, is produced naturally by the body, and interferon treatment saves lives, the treatment can also produce awful side effects, so ‘interferon’, and ‘psalms’, which are poetically soothing, sit at odds with one another.
I returned to the poem, the one true place,
Whose blood was syntax,
Whose body was the word.
I can’t show you the rest of this poem, you’ll have to buy the book. But if you have access to it, here is my analysis.
The first line is strong, as it tells the reader that it’s a poem about a poem.
To me, the poem is about the narrator, a poet who finds refuge in poetry.
Images used are poem, notebook, syntax, word: all elements of writing. As well there is blood, matter and light: all elements of life. Also there is the image of a cutlass, which is a machete, or a short naval sword, scything the air for words to use in poetry.
The theme of the poem is poetry, the one true place of refuge. And perhaps, pain, and finding peace in one’s writing.
The blood is a metaphor for the use of grammar, which the narrator has had a lot of experience with.
The last two lines: the ‘Waving my cutlass, I scythed the air. (God bless this notebook and all who sail in her.), suggests the narrator slashing the air and snatching precious words out of the air, and being thankful for the treasure of a notebook to keep them in. And the idea that people can ‘sail’ in a notebook suggests that there is a story in there that will take the reader on a journey!
I really like this poem; I love the way it is written, and the use of language and poetry. On first reading, I felt that Davies had slashed open his heart and bled out his feelings for the love of poetry, out onto the page. He is a gifted poet we could all learn from, who has a way of writing about love, life and pain without coming across as overly sentimental.
My favourite poem is the Totem poem; I really like the use of the labyrinth and the fact that the Minotaur is set free, thereby turning the Greek myth on its head!
If I could take anything from my studying of Davies as a contemporary poet, it would be the idea that science journals could be of great use in poetry and they are perfect for gathering information from, to be used to create poetry. And that when awful things happen to us, after we settle down from the pain, we can exploit these issues and use them for the greater good in our art, writing, and above all, our poetry. As well as all this, I adored his use of mythology within the Totem poem, and will definitely be producing some of my work flowing out from this idea! Now I just need to be brave enough to post it…
(A Message sent out into the universe for the poet Luke Davies. If you ever read this, thank you. Reading you’re poetry has changed everything, the way I write it, and the way I read it. If I could be just a tiny bit as a good a poet as you, I’ll be happy!)
‘Luke Davies: Interferon Psalms’ 2011, podcast, The Book Show, ABC Radio National, accessed 23 April 2012, http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2011/10/bsw_20111011_1005.mp3
Ball, M, Strozie, S 2006, The Audience Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, The World Audience, NY, New York.
Brennen, M 2012, Poetry International Web Foundation, Interview with Luke Davies, Australia, viewed 1 April 2012, http://australia.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=19666
Davies, L 2011, Interferon Psalms, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW
Davies, L, Blogspot, The Daily Totem, viewed 12 April 2012, http://lukedavies.blogspot.com.au/>
Dow, S 2008, ‘Luke Davies: Expat’, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 24 April 2012,http://0search.proquest.com.library.vu.edu.au/docview/364299285?accountid=14844
Gleeson-White, J 2012, Blogspot, Bookish Girl, viewed 24 May 012, http://bookishgirl.com.au/2011/09/12/luke-davies-and-his-interferon-psalms/>
Poetry Library, Luke Davies, viewed 12 April 2012, http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/davies-luke/
Poetry Library, Totem Poem, viewed 15 April 2012, http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/davies-luke/totem-poem-0065001
The Age 2004, ‘Love in the time of poetry’, viewed 11 April 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/18/1092765003067.html