Bruce Beaver, one of Australia’s least known great poets, was born an Aquarian on Valentine’s Day 1928. With his typically uncanny sense of psychic timing he also died an Aquarian on the 17th February 2004.
During his long life he struggled with a multitude of debilitating illnesses, mental and physical, but wrote prolifically with courage, pungent wit, heterodox illumination and love – eleven collections of poetry, a number of volumes of new and selected poetry, a prose novel and a collection of prose sketches. Beaver also had a gift for friendship, and like Elizabeth Bishop wrote letters as epiphanies that often became a prelude or accompaniment to his poetry. His work, from his first book, Under the Bridge (1961), to his shining posthumous collection, The Long Game (2005), is a treasury still waiting to be properly explored and evaluated.
The voice in any Beaver poem is unmistakable. It is eerily intimate, at times terrifyingly so. In his groundbreaking collection, Letters to Live Poets (1969), Beaver beat the American Confessional poets at their own game, while revealing the ‘pit’ of madness under the dozy complacency of Australian society and its poetry. Yet Beaver is always warm, even chatty, inviting you to know and share his life in all its rueful domestic detail. Despite his aura of numinous erudition he is just a middle-aged man who suffers from spring rheumatism. And complains a lot.
Beaver spent virtually all his life living in the Sydney beachside suburb of Manly. His childhood was Manly. And then his marriage with his beloved wife and companion, Brenda, was also Manly. The Beavers spent many years residing at the top of a modern block of units. An unremarkable building, which stood literally on the spot of his demolished childhood home. Manly became Beaver’s kingdom. His memories permeate and mark every street, much like Cavafy marks his Alexandria. And, like Alexandria, Manly, an otherwise touristified and overdeveloped suburb, becomes uncanny and haunted. Beaver wrote Manly into a phantom companion of his own, from the erotic beaches of his childhood to the ‘black plastic monster’ on the roof of the Shark Aquarium. Manly was also where the adolescent Beaver first became mad, suicidal, and discovered poetry. At times perhaps his fertile lifelong sanctuary became claustrophobic, overwhelming him with terror and ghosts.
Bruce Beaver loved the idea of the psychopomp. Beaver is one himself. In each poem he takes you on a spiritual journey. Sometimes he is Hermes, strolling you in and out of private landscapes glowing with unearthly energy. Other times he is Charon ferrying you to the underworld, the night of necessary death:
Nothing but death would ever set us free;
nothing but night renewed our will to live.
Beaver is a master of the conversation poem, where his unique voice, rich with play and esoteric learning, seduces you into illumination. Sometimes dark, sometimes light, even cheery when he relishes and shares his food, wine, gossip and private view from the balcony.
Other times you are an invited eavesdropper to conversations Beaver is having with himself, his wife, other poets or, memorably, in his collection, Death’s Directives (1978), Death itself. These conversations are never stilted or boring. There is an underlying urgency to them. The daemonic dimension, in which Beaver so fervently believed, is either unsettlingly present or not far away. Especially in his later books he invokes potent images from his dedicated reading of Jung, and yearns to revere the sacred “Anima” in his relationships with real women, as well as in his own poetry. In his empathic and droll homage to the American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, Poems for Adrienne Rich, he writes:
Reading your poems makes me want to
make again. Something stirs in me
that is no longer man-root,
no longer the male imperative
that drove you and your sisters
under the skin up the wall
(‘Poems for Adrienne Rich II’)
Like all great poets Bruce Beaver is a fabulous paradox. He can write in a traditional vein about traditional subjects including passion, suffering, politics, poetry and place. But always with a Beaverian modernity. A seared flavour far more arresting than the usual modernist or postmodernist formula of tepid irony. And few Australian poets have ever had Beaver’s awe and respect for the other world, where life is nocturnal and porous, where spirits leak through. Few other poets have had the spiritual toughness to report it so faithfully.
I have selected twenty-two of his poems, mostly personal favourites from a number of his books, but especially from his collection, Charmed Lives (1988) which showcases Beaver’s enticing skill for dramatic and narrative poetry. In my view his ‘Tiresias Sees’, in the star turn voice of the blind hermaphrodite seer, Tiresias, is one of the most entertaining and imaginatively scintillating sequence of poems I have ever read.
Bruce Beaver wrote in a relaxed range of styles, from short lyric poems through chunky autobiographical prose poetry, notably in ‘As it Was’, to probably where he was most comfortable, the long discursive poem where he could let out his belt on every subject under the terrestrial or extraterrestrial sun. Every poem has his own dextrous savour. From the last days of Atlantis:
Holding him we felt a sudden
chill breeze on our backs and bare heads.
Evening had come early to us.
(‘East of Atlan’)
back to his own mystified self in Manly –
All I could say though
when the blindfold was taken off
and I was asked where I was
would be Manly.
The only style of poetry that never really suited him, though he wrote many recreationally, was the haiku. I don’t believe this ultra distilled form gave Beaver the space and lift he needed for his wing-footed journeys between Heaven and Hell, all the while earthed:
there’s a poet still living at this address.
(‘Letter to Live Poets I’)
Under the Bridge, Beaujon Press, Sydney, 1961.
Seawall and Shoreline, South Head Press, Sydney, 1964.
Open At Random, South Head Press, Sydney, 1967.
Letters to Live Poets, South Head Press, Sydney, 1969.
Lauds and Plaints: Poems 1968-1972, South Head Press, Sydney, 1974.
Odes and Days, South Head Press, Sydney, 1975.
Death's Directives, Prism Books, Sydney, 1978.
As It Was, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984.
Headlands: Prose Sketches, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1986.
Charmed Lives, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1988.
New and Selected Poems 1960-1990, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1991.
Anima and Other Poems, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1995.
Poets and Others, Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 1999.
The Long Game and Other Poems, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2005.
Bruce Beaver interviewed by John Tranter on February 17, 2004.
Obituary for Bruce Beaver published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 20, 2004: