Luke Davies is a critically acclaimed poet, novelist, and screenplay writer, with something of a popular groundswell of readers and fans uncommon in Australian poetry. His second volume, Absolute Event Horizon, was shortlisted for the National Book Council Poetry Prize, while Running With Light won the 2000 Judith Wright Poetry Prize at the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards. Davies’ most recent poetry collection, Totem, won the 2005 South Australian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry, the Grace Leven Poetry Prize 2004, the Age’s Poetry Book of the Year Award and the overall Age Book of the Year Award, firmly establishing him as one contemporary Australian poetry’s most acclaimed new voices. In 2004 Davies was also awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Poetry. Along with his poetry, Davies has published two novels, the bestselling novel Candy and Isabelle the Navigator, while a third novel titled The Book of Howard H is forthcoming through Allen & Unwin in 2007. Davies’ play Stag was performed as part of the 2006 Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 Loud Program, and along with co-writing the screenplay for Candy with Neil Armfield, Davies has written two other screenplays, Division 7 and Merlo, as well as making his first forays in front of and behind the camera with a one line role as a milkman in Armfield’s film version of Candy and as director of a documentary titled The Diary of a Milkman.
Davies is an unusual phenomenon in Australian poetry: a popular and commercially successful writer whose work has moved far beyond the small but passionate readership of Australian poetry. Some part of this success is no doubt due to his work as a novelist. Published in 1997, his first novel Candy was shortlisted for the 1998 NSW Premier’s Awards and was a commercial success. It has since been translated into various languages and published in France, Spain, Germany, Israel, Greece, the UK and US. More recently, Davies adapted Candy into a screenplay with the acclaimed director Neil Armfield, winning the 2006 AWGIE for Best Adapted Screenplay. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2006, and starring Heath Ledger, Abbie Cornish and Geoffrey Rush, this latest departure for Davies will no doubt bring new readers to his novels and poetry alike.
Since his first little chapbook of poetry, Four Plots for Magnets, was published in 1982, Davies has maintained and developed an engaging poetic voice consistent for its clarity, humour and ability to put into play popular culture, an abiding interest in cosmology, quantum mechanics and chaos theory, and personal experiences of addiction, love and the recognition of the world’s infinite playfulness and variation. By recognition I mean to suggest that Davies’ poetry is most often a conscious return to the moment, a re-cognition or re-visioning of the subject’s experience through the prism and near infinite trajectories and vectors the convergence of language, memory, being and experience afford.
Some part postmodern Troubadour with a penchant for entropy and the odd neutrino, Davies might yet be seen as a religious poet. There are resonances in his work with Christian mystics such as Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Blake and Hopkins. For that though, drawing a line of dependence and influence, or making a claim for the religious, would be reductive of a poet whose sensibilities and concerns hinge upon a visceral — at times lugubrious, at times concupiscent — evocation of the physicality of experience. Every line is a curve, every reference point a string, and more often than not for Davies, the religious light is a refraction of the more immediate and profane light of this world set to its infinite confines:
There is more blue up here. This is good. There is
more light careening in the air. The haloes are in form.
Light floods the cerebral cortex all day long; the
toughest wildest physicists acknowledge this, agree with this.
And certainly the angels know and watch the light flood into
certain minds. This is something they do when they tire
of aetherial tag and aerial dogfights and general angel
larrikinism. They take their cortex watching seriously.
Davies also takes his cortex watching seriously. He shares the same larrikin spirit of the angels, a generosity of spirit that is in some strange way ruthless for its generosity, for its ability not to shy away from a lust for life (pace Richard Dawkins as much as Iggy Pop). There is an irrepresible sense of mischief, a playfulness engendered by a very conscious realization of the contingencies of knowing experience or gainsaying its truths. A knowledge that experience is multiple, if not infinite, subject as it is to interpretation and re-interpretation, the faults of memory and the difficulties of expression, all of which finally resting somewhere near the absences of godhead or a privileged referent, meaning or truth. Davies’ poetry embraces this unknowing or kenosis, the dark matter of experience or being, without losing touch with the contemporary, the popular or the readable. As in ‘Poetry and Flowers’ the most complex idea, such as the moment of knowing and naming, can be simply stated, the humour, allusion and ambiguities left open and clear to the reader’s own resources:
Lark and rose go mad, even with winter
coming on, the garden beneath the verandah blooms,
the park is dense with sun and soccer balls.
By lark I mean generic bird, God knows
the names for all these things with wings. Ditto
the rose: the garden drooling colour and bloom.
For this, mixing as it does with Davies’ dominating themes of love and the cosmos, his poetry offers an endlessly engaging depth of thought enlightened by an agile spirit. His work tends to draw quantum physics and chaos theory through peripatetic imaginings and love-struck songs towards a mysticism not far removed from the sort of a/theology Mark C. Taylor describes in Erring, so that he is first and foremost a poet of the here and now, of the infinite moment.
The title poem of his most recent collection Totem, shows Davies at his most profuse in all of this, and in one of the most successful long Australian poems of the last thirty years, Davies can be seen to have moved his work centre stage of the contemporary Australian poetry. In Totem, Davies has opened up a path for Australian poetry in much the way that Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets, Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, or Kinsella’s Syzygy showed poets there were other ways to plunder a muse. It is also, more simply, one of the most triumphant imaginings of the ever-so physical metaphysics of love and desire, approaching the sort of translucent and masterful evocation of love’s transcendence found in Malouf’s The Crab Feast.
There is a street-smart guilelessness to Davies’ work that is fascinating, an openness that for its acute playfulness is not simple-minded belly-fluff sniffing lyricism, but a penetrative engagement with the foibles of self and language, deception, self-deception and the chimera of truths, that presses beyond simple constructs of self or its experience. Davies’ playfulness, ranges through any number of possible referents from the ‘Song of Songs’ to James Gleick, from Rumi to Patti Smith, or Stevens back to Lucretius and off again through popular culture to popular science, from literary theory to a long and passionate reading in poetry. Davies’ poetry does not seek the illusory protection of irony’s detachment of self from subject, but rather does seek to express personal closely felt experience. His irony is most finely wrought through his capriciousness, in his ability to mix and shift registers, some part whimsy, some part wisdom, and play the profound off the profane to immediate effect, to riddle rhetoric with the force of the living, experiencing human voice. Take for example the swift discourse of Totem’s opening lines:
In the yellow time of pollen, in the blue time of lilacs,
in the green that would balance on the wide green world,
air filled with flux, world-in-a-belly
in the blue lilac weather, she had written a letter:
You came into my life really fast and I liked it.
Beguiling for its unabashed rush of rhetorical lushness as much as the last line’s flat, almost rock-lyric, directness. Nor, though aware of the various contesting language theories and poetics of contemporary literature, and at times drawing from or parodying them, does Davies ever lose sight, or allow language to obscure, the central conundrum of experience and expression, of the physical impact and wonder of being in the world on the thinking and sometimes purely instinctual self. Davies’ poetry is unabashed without a blithering gush. It is well-considered without being sterilized or over-cooked. Finely balanced, there is an apparent care for the reader, for the need of poetry to communicate beyond the self, along with a provocative assertion of the speaking self not limited or embarrassed by the reader’s presence, by the reader’s approach to the most intimate and most wholly felt.
One of Davies’ central strengths is that he is not afraid to allow his poetry to be sentimental, to express emotion richly and cogently and unguardedly. While there is a burden of sorrow to much of Davies’ early work, this sorrow rises into a robust and rhapsodic exhortation of the abundance and vertiginous beauty of being not simply in the world but in relation to it and to others. It is perhaps for this that Davies is remarkable among his contemporaries, with his irrepressible, near irrevocable burgeoning of desire, lust and love that leaves a large part of the rest of the Australian poetic landscape gray and doleful in the least. Davies’ poetry offers a coherent evocation of the evolution of primal fears — of death, loss and loneliness, of the meaninglessness of matter and existence, of the recurrent needs that can save or destroy us — into something as simple and infinitely complex as each moment shared and given, each moment recounted and experienced in its quantum of possibilities. Never abandoning ‘the awkwardness/ of being alive, the unshakeable awareness/ of self as intrusion, and the ridiculousness/ of consciousness’ (Nature poem), Davies’ genius is to find through this doubt and uncertainty a transforming spirit, a passion, that senses and celebrates its part in a greater knowing and unknowing. His poetry dances in a haphazard and joyful place in the convergence of the worlds and bodies, forms and ideas, places and displacements that the human embodies and inhabits. It is a poetry that remains attentive to a greater symmetry, a cosmology, ineffable but for the saving and failing graces of the body, the spirit and of love:
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.
Four Plots for Magnets, Glandular Press, Sydney, 1982.
Absolute Event Horizon, Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins, Sydney, 1994. Running with Light, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999.
The Entire History of Architecture … and other love poems, Vagabond Press, Sydney 2001.
Totem, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004.
Candy, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997.
Isabelle the Navigator, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2000.
The Book of Howard H, forthcoming from Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2007.
Candy (co-written with director Neil Armfield) 2006.
Stag (produced by Wharf2Loud, Sydney Theatre Company 2006).
Luke Davies interviewed by Michael Brennan, editor of the Australian domain at the Poetry International Festival, Rotterdam on Tuesday 16 June 2009
Luke Davies / Michael Brennan
Cameron Woodhead reviews Totem
Bev Braune reviews Totem
James Stuart reviews Totem
Luke Davies and Neil Armfield, Candy
Susan Wyndham, ‘Poets discover a rhythm method’
Sydney Morning Herald article on translation project between Davies and German poet Uwe Kolbe (English language)
Candy, the movie
includes various posts regarding the movie, the novel and Davies (English language)
Frances Simmons profile of Luke Davies (English language)
Luke Davies on Lyrikline