Philip Salom’s Keepers Trilogy

Following from Karl Popper's notion of 'subjectless' knowledge, this article
argues that poetry, like the other arts and sciences can be construed as a
distinct 'world'. This world is constituted by internal relations both in a
structural and an intertextual sense. Utilising Yury Lotman's
formalist-structuralist approach, the difference between an internal
relation and an external relation is made clear through a close reading of
John Kinsella's 'The Silo', where the antipastoral elements are shown to be
in an external relation to it, whereas the gothic mode is in an internal
relation. A close reading of Philip Salom's Keepers trilogy further explores
the kind of knowledge possessed by poetry.


Keywords: Karl Popper - Nelson Goodman - epistemology - Yury Lotman - Philip Salom - John Kinsella - gothic - formalism - structuralism


‘Poetry as Knowing’ is a phrase which appears to be both intuitively correct and a bit of a puzzle: surely, after reading a poem (or during it) we feel that we have come to know a little bit more about ourselves, the world, language, and poetry itself at the very least. This is a common-sense view of poetry, undoubtedly true to some extent, but much of which is subsumed under the common-sense functions of language. I don’t want to dismiss these aspects of poetry, merely place them to one side for the moment, for it is equally possible that poetry is concerned with knowing in other, less immediate ways. For example, there is the structural sense in which a poem can be understood in its difference from other poems (and its words and devices can be understood in terms of their structural differences, syntagmatically and paradigmatically, from other words and devices). In this paper I will be taking a formalist approach to reading Philip Salom’s Keepers trilogy, with a passing reference to John Kinsella’s ‘The Silo’, in order to gain a better understanding of what kind of knowing might be in poetry, or might be gained from reading the data of the poem. However, to start with I want to investigate the possibility that poetry might represent a distinct world, in Popper’s sense of ‘epistemology without a knowing subject’1 or in a related sense as the ‘ways of worldmaking’ of which Nelson Goodman writes.2 Popper’s use of the term ‘world’ is, in his own words, not to be taken too seriously, but he seems to be referring to a group, or relatively autonomous set of similar things. Similarly, Goodman’s notion of a ‘world’ is of ‘right world-descriptions and world-depictions and world-perceptions, the ways-the-world-is, or just versions’ of the ‘underlying world’.3

Popper distinguishes between three worlds as follows:

first, the world of physical objects or of physical states; secondly, the world of states of consciousness, or of mental states, or perhaps of behavioural dispositions to act; and thirdly, the world of objective contents of thought, especially of scientific and poetic thoughts and of works of art.4

According to Popper,

the inmates of my ‘third world’ are, more especially, theoretical systems; but inmates just as important are problems and problem situations.5

It could be argued, however, that the entities which comprise the third world ‘are, essentially, symbolic or linguistic expressions of subjective mental states, or perhaps of behavioural dispositions to act’, which is really a relegation of verbal art, if we include that among these categories, to a means of communication only—that is, using ‘symbolic or linguistic means to evoke in others similar mental states or behavioural dispositions to act.’6

The reduction of poetry to mere communication ignores its artistic qualities, and can be dispensed with here, not because poetry does not communicate, but because the communicative function of language is not unique to poetry and is not immediately relevant to the notion of poetry as a work of art, comprising a distinct world of subjectless knowledge. Popper’s thought experiment regarding this ‘worlding’ makes it clear what he means. In the first part of the experiment, he proposes a scenario in which all the tools and machines in the world, as well all our subjective learning, including how to use or build those tools, are destroyed, but libraries and our capacity to learn from them survive. In this scenario, the world may get going again, after much suffering. But in a second scenario, in which all of the above are destroyed and all libraries are destroyed also, then the capacity to learn from books becomes useless. Clearly, this thought experiment can be applied to poetry considered as a body of knowledge comprising an autonomous sphere, or world. So without poetry as an objective, subjectless body of knowledge, poetic thought ceases to exist in this worse case thought experiment scenario, or at least exists in only basic forms. We’d have to start all over again.7

Nelson Goodman, likewise, is concerned with the non-Kantian8 theme of multiplicity of worlds, and is interested in exploring how these worlds are made from other worlds.9 In his Ways of Worldmaking he emphasises a number of points: that the worlds with which he is concerned can encompass science, the arts and other spheres of human activity and that the presence of multiple worlds need not necessarily imply a relativistic position. Crucial to this important distinction is that worlds are made from other worlds: ‘Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand: the making is a remaking.’10 Moreover, the worlds of fiction and poetry, in particular, ‘are built largely by such nonliteral devices as metaphor, by such nondenotational means as exemplification and expression.’11 Given that worlds are largely versions of other worlds at hand, Goodman identifies a number of processes through which worldmaking occurs: ordering, supplementation, deletion, division, composition, deformation and weighting.12 I will return to some of these processes later, in relation to Philip Salom’s Keepers trilogy.

Considered from these points of view, the third world, or sphere of poetry should be considered as knowledge in an objective sense; that is, it exists independently of a subjective state of mind or consciousness. In addition, we can, within this sphere or third world of poetry, identify individual worlds which are versions made of other worlds. For the purposes of this paper, I am taking works of some significance (whole books, trilogies or the oeuvre of a poet) rather than individual lyrics to be representative of these ‘worlds’.

Of course, in our world, the objective knowledge of poetry contained in a book easily becomes subjective once a book of poems is picked up and is read. This is a crucial point: the subjectless, or objective knowledge of the world of poetry is different from the subjective knowledge we have of poetry once we read it. But before I consider the shift in poetry as a kind of knowing from the objective to the subjective sense, I want to ask what kind of knowing is in this poetry world? To my mind, it is not an object, or an aggregation of objects, but a set of relations. In the broadest sense, poetry is a relation which mediates between the first and second worlds, the worlds of physical objects and of consciousness, but it is also a set of internal relations which form a vast reticulation between its constituent works (and worlds), and forms links to other worlds, such as those of art, music and philosophy.

An internal relation is a relation between two entities such that if they had not been in this relation the nature of each would necessarily have been different. This is different to an external relation, where although the link between the two terms is not necessary, it can shed light, or it can obscure. An example of this in Australian poetry is the anti-pastoralism of which John Kinsella, Louis Armand, Liu Pingping and Glen Phillips write in relation to Kinsella’s work, specifically his The Silo and The New Arcadia. Pingping and Phillips write of the way in which Kinsella dismantles the pastoral myth, as ‘codified … in the work of landscape painters, poets, writers of fiction; in the books and papers of politicians, art historians, historical geographers, and others such as environmental and social historians’,13 although very little proof is adduced for this claim. The problem here could be neatly summarised as the problem in confusing a relation with a quality, or in confusing an external relation with an internal relation. By qualities here I mean the literary qualities of a work, and I am following the example of Bill Maidment as set out in his seminal 1964 essay ‘Australian Literary Criticism’.14 Although published 50 years ago, Maidment’s essay, which has never been republished, is notable for its attempt to demarcate literary qualities from literary values, and literary qualities from non-literary qualities. Despite the apparent datedness of this approach, particularly when seen from an age in which the separation between poetic and other texts is questionable,15 it is nevertheless also valid, I think, to question what it means when one is talking of a quality that belongs to a poem or other literary text in distinction to a quality that may well relate to that text, but not necessarily ‘belong’ to that text. It may well be the case that a poem’s meaning comes from the meanings circulating in the world at large at any given time; yet, our culture persists in presenting poems as poems, published in journals and the like which label them as such, and in books that are marketed as poetry. Another example that might make clear my approach is my reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a Menippean satire. This genre identification proceeds from a close reading of formal and rhetorical features of the work, and revises previous understandings of the poem which have sought to contextualise it solely in terms of broader discourses of ‘tradition’, ‘Romanticism’ and ‘Modernism’, at times with less regard for the textual qualities of the work than the connections that can be made to these discourses external to it.16 Given this, it is worth returning to the question of what qualities may pertain to a literary text if only because the distinction of ‘literary’ is still, even to this day, claimed for it.

For Maidment, whose small number of publications but extensive influence as a teacher mark him as a follower of Andersonian pluralism,

A thing has qualities inherently, of itself; it ‘has’ values—not value—only in respect of those qualities and the schemes of valuation applied or applicable to them. A thing’s qualities being infinite, and the valuation schemes applicable to it being both infinite and in many cases opposite, the values of anything are infinite and in many cases opposite. You can investigate whether the literary work is a thing, a verbal meaning-entity (hence the emphasis traditionally laid on unity in literary criticism), and you can define that thing which it is, discriminate its qualities. These are not two stages but one … No amount of study of literary qualities alone will substantiate a value-judgement, will authorize the conversion of difference into rank. Nor will it disprove a disapproved ranking where the actual presence of a quality is not at issue, or the valuation scheme on which that ranking depends.17

Following Maidment, I am distinguishing literary qualities from literary values. The case being made above by Kinsella et al. for Kinsella’s work is that its ‘value’ is largely a function of things external to the work, but which are supposed by the authors cited above to be in the work. For example, in Kinsella’s poem ‘Windlight: A Reading’ we have a description of a butchered sheep as

… the rib-bound fleece
that hangs over a corroding washing line,
flapping eerily (and that’s too easy),
under grey-tainted skies …18

Pingping and Phillips draw attention to the guilt regarding the cruelty of farm work but, like the self-referential parenthesis in the poem, this reading is ‘too easy’: the most salient feature about this passage is its attempt to draw attention to what might be seen as deliberately bad writing (I refer to Kinsella’s ‘linguistic disobedience’19), in this case investing a dead animal with a gothic cachet. In order to read this poem as anti-pastoral, a great deal of work needs to be done on relations which are external to the work. For example, Kinsella positions his project in terms that are largely external to the text: ‘the radical pastoral, new pastoral, anti-pastoral, the counter-pastoral, is the fringe area between rural and urban, between speech-writing and thought.’20 At times, his arguments appear to rely on events in ‘the world’ (‘that the very degradation of land by change has brought around a reassessment of the idyll’21) and to also derive a certain moral authority from this connection. This is a kind of naive realism. Nevertheless, there is a consistent claim that Kinsella is interrogating the European pastoral in his poetry:

In my 1995 book, The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, I explore the south-west Australian wheatbelt environment and character through perceptions of both the European pastoral and Romanticism. It is a book that many have commented is devoid of nostalgia, but still open to the possibility of contact with the players in this community.22

It is my contention that the relation to a discourse of pastoralism is external to the text and must be brought to this and other poems by the reader. Otherwise, a version of the gothic prevails both in terms of the relations within the text and the internal relations with the gothic mode external to it. Take, for example, his poem ‘The Silo’ (excerpted here rather than quoted in full):

The Silo

Visitors, as if they knew, never remarked
on the old silo with its rammed earth walls
and high thatched roof, incongruous amongst
the new machinery and silver field bins.
Nor the workers brought in at harvest time,
trucks rolling past the ghostly whimperings,
snarls and sharp howls cutting the thick silo’s


                      Thin sprays of baby’s breath
grew around its foundations, while wedding
bouquet sprouted bizarrely from the grey
mat of thatching. The sun had bleached the walls
bone-white while the path to the heavily
bolted door was of red earth, a long thin
stream of unhealthy blood. Before those storms
which brew thickly on summer evenings
red-tailed black cockatoos settled in waves,
sparking the straw like a volcano, dark
fire erupting from the heart of the white
silo, trembling with energy deeper
than any anchorage earth could offer.
And lightning dragging a moon’s bleak halo
to dampen the eruption, with thunder
echoing out over the bare paddocks
towards the farmhouse where an old farmer
consoled his bitter wife on the fly-proof
verandah, cursing the cockatoos, hands
describing a prison from which neither
could hope for parole, petition, release.

This poem is characterised essentially by ambiguity which remains unresolvable. There are hints that there is something amiss with the silo: it is ‘incongruous’, there are ‘ghostly whimperings/snarls and sharp howls’, the walls of it are ‘bone-white’ and the path to it is ‘a long stream of unhealthy blood’. These elements, which really belong to the gothic mode, are accompanied by a kind of chthonic energy, with black cockatoos ‘sparking the straw like a volcano, dark/fire erupting from the heart of the white/silo, trembling with energy deeper/than any anchorage earth could offer.’ This subterranean energy, the provenance of which has been established as uncanny by the earlier descriptions of the silo, is shown as moving towards an old farmer consoling his bitter wife, with his or their ‘hands/describing a prison from which neither/could hope for parole, petition, release.’ The dungeon or prison in the Gothic tradition is nearly always subterranean and so the supernatural energy associated with the chthonic is also associated with that which imprisons or restricts. The only other clues we have apart from this uncanny cause of their suffering are the ‘Thin sprays of baby’s breath’ growing around its foundations and the ‘wedding/bouquet sprout[ing] bizarrely from [its] grey/mat of thatching’. If these plants are in fact symbols, and the adverb ‘bizarrely’, which belongs to the same group of gothic words noted above, suggests that there are interpretations to be arrived at (and that these interpretations should perhaps belong properly to the gothic mode), it is not at all clear what they symbolise; one would have to resort to guessing: the death of a child, perhaps playing in the silo, the parents trapped in grief, etc. It is equally unclear what the relation is between this private grief and the gothic irruptions into the pastoral world depicted in ‘The Silo’. There is no discernible connection between the pastoral qua pastoral and the grief of the farming couple, except in the loosest possible fashion. As such, it is less convincing to read this poem as anti-pastoral than it is to read it as an example of the gothic mode. It could be that, obliquely, the ‘parole’ of the second last line is not remission from a sentence, but the ‘utterance’ of this poem itself, and thus indicates a fairly traditional and unconvincing notion of the redemptive power of poetry. 

To summarise, there is no necessity in the relation between Kinsella’s poems in The Silo and the (anti-)pastoralism which Pingping, Phillips and Kinsella identify as being central to the work, apart from those poems necessarily seeming to reflect broader, non-poetic concerns; and no matter how ambitious one’s claims for the potential for poetry to change the world, these relations are not at all necessary to these broader, non-poetic concerns, and therefore must be considered as external relations. In fact the value placed on these relations—that Kinsella’s work dismantles a pastoral myth—are valuations of the works but not valuations in the works: those readings adduced in support of this by Phillips and Pingping, for example, are unconvincing and do not dwell in any significant way on the literary qualities of the works. In short, it is a game being played outside of the poetic text, with little regard for its literary qualities. As far as the internal relations which constitute the ‘The Silo’ are concerned, they mark the poem as belonging to the genre of the gothic, and the poem is a fairly conventional example of it.

But what are the literary qualities of a work? This is not as straightforward a question as it would seem. If we restrict ourselves to poetry, then we might say that the literary qualities of the work are the sum of its figures of speech such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, simile, anaphora, parallelism, paradox and the like, as well as the semiotic aspects of its graphic organisation—the lines, indents and so on—as well as poetic ideas such as enjambment. Additionally, sometimes when the poetic ideas are complex and rely on complex theories of poetics, or philosophical ideas, or ideas taken from other discourses altogether, the literary qualities start to recede outside the literary world or sphere and enter other orbits altogether. When the latter occurs, not only does the boundary between the poetic text and that of external discourses become blurred or ignored altogether, what may have been a literary quality to begin with soon becomes a quality in a game other than that of the poem. In other words, we might start with the constituent parts of language and rhetoric, but very soon find ourselves in a realm of relations which are indistinguishable from literary values and valuations which, as we have seen, may ultimately have little or nothing to do with the work. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, unless one is making a claim for literary qualities when one is really talking about literary values. As Maidment says, it seems to be an impossible leap from qualities to valuations, and once that leap has occurred, discussion of literary qualities is no longer at stake. To restate the problem in terms of the ‘world-making’ of poetry: a world of poetry is necessary because it contains the internal relations which comprise it, and values as such are irrelevant; but values may be intrinsic to the identification of qualities and perhaps to the realisation of their relatedness. In order to find a way out of this problem for poetic knowledge, or ways of knowing in poetry (how do we speak of ways of knowing of and in poetry without recourse to talking about other things?), I want to turn to a brief consideration of Yury Lotman’s poetic theories.

Lotman was a Soviet-era structuralist who built on the work of the earlier structuralists (including Roman Jakobson) and various formalists to develop the most comprehensive structuralist theory of poetry we have, although it is still not complete. Fundamental to his approach is to view the constituent parts of a poem according to a number of levels and I should state at the outset that Lotman views these levels in a strict hierarchy, whereas I do not. These levels can be summarised as:

1     The Graphic Level: this forms the basis of Rosemary Huisman’s study of the semiotics of written poetry from Old to Modern English.23 It refers to the organisation of the poem into lines, the arrangement of stepped and indented lines and the arrangement of lines on the page.

2     The Phonological Level: The phonological structure of the poem.

3     The Morphological Level: the purely grammatical meanings which become artistic devices in poetry.

4     The Lexical Level: in terms of the world-making aspects of a poem, the ‘lexicon of a poem is a model of that particular restricted universe’24 and the lexical items which make up the restricted world of the poem.

5     The Line: for example the non-coincidence or otherwise of metrical organisational units with that of the line; intonation, syntax and rhyme all may either complement or conflict with the ‘surface’ lexical meaning of a line.

6     The Stanza: ‘the minimal stanza consists of two lines, a couplet. In its more complex forms, the lines forming a stanza may constitute a hierarchy …  structured in terms of interlocking unities of various levels such as meter, rhyme, and sense.’25

7    The Compositional Level: larger structural units, such as supra-phrasal structures which in comparison with each other and their unrealised variants, form structural paradigms.

8     The Text: the sum of the constituent levels of the poem, or to put it bluntly, the poem itself.26

To Lotman’s schema I would suggest that we could add another level:

9     The Physical Level. Is the written word electronically represented or on paper in a book or on a poster? These are important considerations because they often enter into the semiotic structure of the text, as I shall soon demonstrate in relation to Philip Salom’s Keepers Trilogy.

The reason I reject the strict hierarchisation of Lotman’s analytical model is that it is the internal relations within each of these levels and, more importantly, from a formalist point of view, the internal relations between elements in the different levels, or between the different levels as a whole, which constitute the literary qualities of the work. Whereas on some levels a literary quality is an object (a mark on a page, for example), on other levels it is only an approximation of an object (a metaphor, which is also a mental process, or repetition, which is an event) and there are other qualities which emerge after re-readings, re-experiencings and re-contextualisations of a poem which result in new relations being formed. It makes less sense for literary qualities to be insisted upon only as objects there in the poem than it does to recognise such qualities as relational and, to use the terminology established earlier in my discussion of Popper’s third world, they constitute a set of internal relations. These relations can be subjective, in the sense that I read the poem and discover these internal relations either by myself, in collaboration with friends, colleagues or students, or with the help of an insightful critic; but they may also be objective, in the sense that we take the last example, the critic, as someone who can discriminate, enumerate and objectify these internal relations, with the latter aspect forming part of Popper’s knowledge without a knowing subject. Either way, these relations enter into subjective knowledge from the data the reader or critic isolates in the poem. So criticism is an integral part of the ‘third’ poetry world, as it is an articulation of the internal relations of poetry, and inasmuch as it comes to be, if successful, in a necessary relationship with the poems it is concerned with. In these cases, criticism becomes part of a larger set of internal relations including the poems it considers: such is the case with Eliot’s apparently successful integration of his literary criticism with his own poetics,27 or even more spectacularly, with the largely successful linking of complex philosophical and poetic ideas, as in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley of the Romantic poets, with actual poetic practice. And there are many other examples.

There is more to say on this subject, particularly on the problem of ‘bad’ criticism, or criticism which offers us useful insights but is concerned largely with extra-literary values such as the nationalism or ‘the moral achievement’ which Maidment criticised in his discussion of Australian Literary Criticism,28 or with some aspects of eco-poetry, or anti-pastoralism which I have touched on briefly in relation to the work of Kinsella. These are topics which, if pursued, extend beyond the scope of this present paper. For now I must leave them behind in order to turn my attention to Philip Salom’s Keepers, which is an interesting example of Goodman’s ‘worldmaking’, constructing a distinct ‘world’ through a set of internal relations.

The first thing I want to remark on is the format of the book—the physical level which I wanted to add to Lotman’s schema. If you happen to have a physical copy of the book to hand, you will notice that it is a custom size (155 x 230mm), slightly wider and taller than the A5 which has become something of a standard in Australian poetry in recent years. The books of the Keepers Trilogy are, in fact, identical in dimensions to The well mouth, first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in 2005 and republished by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012, after the books of the trilogy had been published. And they are, incidentally, also identical in dimensions to Sheep Meadow Press’ bilingual edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The keeper of sheep. The reason for the identity in dimensions with The well mouth is the commonality of what I call the ‘undertext’—the text which is, in The well mouth, anchored to the bottom of the page and is in italics but is the same size as the font in the body of the poems above it; and in Keepers the ‘undertext’ is located underneath a line, much like the line dividing a footnote or endnote from the primary text. Thus, there is a necessary relation here between the two books, so at the graphic level now we can consider at the very least that Keepers and The well mouth are in an internal relation. There are other differences, though, which are significant. In The well mouth, the ‘undertext’ is without capitalisation at the beginning of the sentences, although there is punctuation such as full-stops and question marks to mark the end of grammatical sentences, despite their grammaticality being called into question by the absence of other punctuation such as colons, semi-colons, commas and dashes (although some words are hyphenated and have apostrophes if necessary). Therefore, at the graphic and the morphological level, an ‘otherness’ is being indicated with this voice, which leads us to read this voice in some kind of opposition to the voice, or voices above it. This is crucial for Salom’s depiction of the alienation of the individual from the institution, in the case of Keepers and The keeper of fish, and also of the alienation of the individual from the greater world, as in the case of Keeping Carter.

In Keepers, by distinction, there is an additional set of elements at the graphic level which seem to work differently to The well mouth. The straight line above the undertext, which is in a smaller font size than the poem body text, as I have indicated, resembles the dividing line of a text with footnotes or endnotes because of its placement and because of the difference in font sizes. This is significant, for Keepers is largely a satire of the goings on in an academic institution. Moreover, this structuring at the graphic level enters into the sense of the poem as a whole. We know from the start that this voice belongs to Alan Fish, for the first poem introduces him and the undertext of the second poem acknowledges the introduction: ‘Yes yes I am the blue-eyed creature deepest in the basement. I live in the Fish-tank. I attend to the tanks of acid the gurgly stuff …’29 Fish’s voice is located in a graphic basement as well as an actual (in the world of the poem) basement and a metaphorical basement as well—the basis of which we do not fully comprehend until the second book in the trilogy, his own The keeper of fish. Moreover, the graphic organisation of the page not only locates the poem above the line and text of the undertext, but also under a ‘superline’ at the top of the page, signifying that the poem inhabits a world above the basement (the academic institution itself) but also, by the same logic, that is ‘beneath’ in some sense, figurative or otherwise, another world.

This is the tripartite world that is common to many satires. Mikhail Bakhtin first drew attention to the tripartite nature of Menippean satire,30 and in many ways this can be seen as parodic of the worlds of the epic, with the worlds of the gods and the underworld equally present with the world of the hero. The multileveled satirical world allows for free-ranging changes in perspective—from on high as it were, looking at the ant-like follies of earth, as in Lucian’s Icaromenippus or Book III of Gulliver’s travels or from below, where all are rendered equal as in the Apocolocyntosis of Seneca, or Slothrop’s descent into the latrines of Pynchon’s Gravity’s rainbow. These tripartite worlds are in turn parodies of western cosmology. In versioning the world of Keepers, Salom has ‘kept’ the composition of many key canonical texts. In Keepers we are constantly made aware of the existence of these other worlds through the graphic levels, but we also hark back to the graphic divisions in The well mouth. What is probably not well known at this time is that The well mouth is the second volume in a trilogy which consists of Sky poems and the recently completed Alterworld (the trilogy will be named after its final volume). The three worlds in each trilogy are distinct. Sky poems represents a world of a limited heaven, a transcendent limbo, The well mouth a kind of purgatorial drift and Alterworld the earth as it may no longer be, after having been transformed by the previous two volumes. Similarly, Keepers represents a similar movement, but in a more personal, or at least persona-centric manner. Keepers represents a kind of satirical earth where the man of ressentiment, Fish, observes from, and is placed underneath the mocked institution in a kind of metaphorical hell. The characters who populate its school of Popular Arts—Gillian, The Face, Andrew, Sue, Pamela, Pete, Robert, Katrina, and numerous students are satirised by their relation to Fish, their attitudes to each other and to the institution which they are part of and which, in this work, defines them. In the second volume, The keeper of fish, itself organised in a tripartite fashion, the focus shifts to Fish’s life, and we gain a better understanding of his complexities and disappointments, but more importantly we begin to muse on what has ‘kept’ him so far: in the final poem ‘the keeper of fish’:

Breathing is not entirely autonomous.
It gets harder the older.

At moments knowing to breathe is
to breathe terrible life into the lungs.

The cats are inverted commas breathing
on either side of me. What have I said?

they asked me to leave and the breath
left with me. It sits on either side of me.

It gets harder the older. All the above.
You’re on your own. Take deep breaths.
                              —The keeper of fish, 89

It seems to me that here we have Alan Fish’s recognition that his existence is coterminous with the breath of a voice. Moreover, his ‘cats are inverted commas breathing/on either side of me. What have I said?’31 and, reflecting on his expulsion from the world of Keepers, he remarks that his breath ‘sits on either side of me’ echoing the quotation marks of the cats and reinforcing the notion that his existence is quoted, ultimately framed by the breath of a line.

If The keeper of fish therefore establishes a world autonomous from Keepers, because it is a fictional extension of it, then Keeping Carter continues the centripetal movement away from the dysfunctional institution of Keepers. Its world is defined, in terms of internal relations, with a physical, graphic, linear and stanzaic identity with the previous volumes (its narrator also has the same musical tastes as the earlier volumes as Geoff Page rather cheekily notes32). Whereas the Alterworld trilogy seems to be an inverted variation on the cosmology of The divine comedy, the Keepers Trilogy reads more like a response to Beckett’s Trilogy, with Carter as some kind of unnameable, an unmanageable persona who stands at the extreme limit of textual heteronymy.

Heteronymity is another internal relation which characterises Salom’s trilogy. In fact, the ‘Keeper(s)’ of the title(s) refer to The keeper of sheep, a work ‘produced by the fictitious shepherd and “master”, Alberto Caeiro, a heteronym of the multiple poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), sometimes called “the man who never was”.’33 Heteronymity, however, is more than a mere strategy of ‘signing’ one’s work with the name of another. Petra White argues that ‘perhaps the function of the heteronym is that it severs not only the poet from the “I”, but also the reader from the poet—challenging our readerly habits of attachment to a “voice”.’34 Certainly, there is much in the attitudes and sensibilities of Alan Fish and M.A. Carter to suggest that this is part of such a strategy, although Alison Croggon has questioned whether or not Salom’s creations are ‘true’ heteronyms rather than personae,35 based on the degree to which Salom’s heteronymic styles differ (little) when compared with the degree to which Pessoa’s heteronymic styles differ (greatly—sometimes they even fight with each other). Such a qualification, however, seems to me not to disqualify Salom’s trilogy from being viewed as being in an internal relation with Pessoa’s work. If there is a spectrum of heteronymy, and Salom and Pessoa are at opposite ends of it, there is nevertheless a central preoccupation with the literary aspects of identity.

Key to this is the recurrence of the word ‘Keepers’ in the title of each book in the trilogy and, unlike Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro, the various implications of the word are crucial not only to Salom’s heteronyms, but to other characters as well, particularly those in Keepers. The most obvious meaning to attach to the word is the notion of a guardian, as in the various literary gatekeepers who attempt to regulate the literary economy. This certainly applies to the various teachers in the unnamed tertiary institution of Keepers, but is less clear when it comes to Fish and Carter. There is, perhaps, a sense that ‘Keepers’ is that other half of the phrase which begins with ‘Finders’ and emphasises the contingency of ownership, which is perhaps closer to the mark for these two. After all, the teachers are only ‘keepers’ in so far as they are employed; but to what extent is the institution ‘keeping’ them, retaining ownership over their identities? Furthermore, who is the keeper of f/Fish in The keeper of fish? Is it Alan Fish himself, or is it the author hidden behind the heteronym who is the subject of the title, controlling his heteronym’s every movement? Might a ‘keeper’ be like one of those rings which are worn to keep another ring from slipping off? There are multiple meanings to be had as a verb (to keep): to restrain, to remain, to conform to, to have the charge or custody of, to maintain in one’s action or conduct, to withhold, to remain indoors, to take care of, to tend, to guard or protect, to observe, to stay in time, to adhere to, to persist, to badger, hector or bully; and, as a noun (keep and keeper) a stronghold, subsistence, board or lodging, someone who keeps guard, a person in charge of something valuable, the ring mentioned above. It is clear that ‘keepers’ is an extraordinarily suggestive term, and that the weighting Salom has given the term when versioning from Pessoa’s heteronymic world means that each of its meanings is relevant in some way to a consideration of the literary qualities of a heteronym. Alison Croggon remarks that ‘what is unarguable is that this prismatic refraction of selves has been extraordinarily liberating for Salom’36 and I think this is because of the multiple ways in which these literary selves are able to define themselves in relation to each other. In Salom’s own words, the heteronym ‘acts as a satiric device to make ironies from within and through a mode (the personal/cum autobiographical lyric)’,37 and as a satiric device it is instructive in terms of how the satire in the Keepers trilogy works: largely as a series of formal and rhetorical moves, rather than as a normative satire depicting a specific institution and its teachers. No doubt our knowledge of tertiary educational institutions in Australia today gives us the contextual knowledge necessary to understand, implicitly, the deeply dissatisfying environment of the institutional world depicted in the first two books of the trilogy, but our understanding of that institution can only be related in the most general terms to those tertiary educational institutions in Australia today. The kind of detailed knowing we have of the institution in the Keepers trilogy is not just derived from graphic and formal qualities, but emerges from the lexical and grammatical levels as well: the satire of the institution involves an uncertainty over the ‘lyric I’, which is in an internal relationship with the heteronymic ‘I’s which constitute the protagonists of each trilogy. Considered from this point of view, this poetry is not just a vessel for satire, but is itself a satire which raises the possibility of new ways of negotiating the self, in relation to the institution, in relation to the self as an other and in relation to the self as radically other from the world.

What I have sketched out in relation to the Keepers and, to a lesser extent, the Alterworld trilogies is a framework of how the subjectless knowledge of the internal relations of these works can be approached and understood, ultimately, as subjective knowledge. Further close readings of these works would yield further knowledge, I am sure, deriving, as I have shown, from an identification and exploration of the internal relations of the works (their ‘literary qualities’). I have contrasted this with a brief study of one of John Kinsella’s poems, whereby I have shown that a reading proceeding from the work’s internal relations realises a substantially different set of meanings than one which proceeds from what I consider to be relations which are external to the work: that is, the theoretical approaches of Kinsella himself, Pingping, Phillips et. al. which demonstrate a preoccupation with the pastoral, the idyll and the anti-pastoral, which are not always borne out by the work itself. In doing this, I have tried to differentiate between the kind of subjectless knowledge that is in the poetry itself from that which is realised by the critic or reader—a subjected knowledge, if you like –which can in turn be related to other kinds of knowing external to the poem, however convincingly or flimsily.


End notes

  • 1. Popper, Karl R 1972 Objective knowledge: an evolutionary approach. Oxford: OUP, 106-51.
  • 2. Goodman, Nelson 1978 Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 7-17.
  • 3. ibid. 4.
  • 4. Popper, op. cit. 106.
  • 5. ibid. 107.
  • 6. ibid.
  • 7. ibid. 108.
  • 8. ‘The non-Kantian theme of multiplicity of worlds is closely akin to the Kantian theme of the vacuity of the notion of pure content. The one denies us a unique world, the other the common stuff of which worlds are made. Together these theses defy our intuitive demand for something stolid underneath, and threaten to leave us uncontrolled, spinning out our own inconsequent fantasies.’ Goodman, 6.
  • 9. Goodman, op. cit. 6.
  • 10. ibid.
  • 11. ibid. 102.
  • 12. ibid. 7-17; 101.
  • 13. Pingping, Liu and Glen Phillips 2009 ‘Radical Pastoralism: John Kinsella’s Great ‘Pastoral Trilogy’’, Landscapes 3.1, 2.
  • 14. Maidment, W M 1964 ‘Australian Literary Criticism’, Southerly Vol. 24, No.1 Mar 20-41.
  • 15. For example, when asked in an interview about his claim that ‘my work is as influenced by Dragnet as by Proust’ Charles Bernstein replies, ‘Well, I have always loved those clipped voice-overs. But I have to say, the influence of Dragnet was nothing compared to the Manhattan Yellow Pages.’ ‘Charles Bernstein 1950 - : An Autobiographical Interview Conducted by Loss Pequeño Glazier’ (accessed 1 May 2014).
  • 16. Musgrave, David 2008 ‘T.S. Eliot’s Menippean Waste Land’ in The Legacy of T.S. Eliot ed. Barry Spurr. Literature & Aesthetics, 18:1.
  • 17. Maidment, op. cit. 28-29.
  • 18. Pingping and Phillips, op. cit. 4, citing John Kinsella 1995, The Silo, Fremantle: FACP, 89.
  • 19. Kinsella, John 2001 ‘A NEW LYRICISM: some early thoughts on linguistic disobedience’, Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities Vol. 6, No. 3 Dec 85-100: 95.
  • 20. Kinsella, John 2007 Disclosed poetics: beyond landscape and lyricism, Manchester: Manchester UP, 67.
  • 21. Kinsella, John ‘The Pastoral and the Political Possibilities of Poetry’ (accessed 1 October 2013).
  • 22. Kinsella, John ‘A Brief Poetics’ (accessed 1 October 2013).
  • 23. Huisman, Rosemary 1998 The written poem: semiotic conventions from old to modern English. London: Cassell.
  • 24. Johnson, D Barton 1976 ‘Translator’s Introduction’ in Yury Lotman, Analysis of the poetic text, ed. & trans. by D. Barton Johnson. Ann Arbor: Ardis, xxiii.
  • 25. ibid. xxiv.
  • 26. Lotman, Y Analysis of the poetic text, ed. & trans. by D. Barton Johnson. Ann Arbor, passim.
  • 27. In many ways, Eliot’s success as a poet can be argued to be a function of his criticism. His concept of the dissociation of sensibility’, the ‘objective correlative’, while developed in relation to the Metaphysical poets, apply also to Eliot’s own poetics.
  • 28. Johnstone, Grahame ed. 1962 Australian Literary Criticism. Melbourne: OUP.
  • 29. Salom, P 2010 Keepers. Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2.
  • 30. Bakhtin, Mikhail 1984 Problems of Dostoyevsky’s poetics, ed. & trans. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester UP, 110.
  • 31. Fish, Alan 2010 The keeper of fish, ed. Philip Salom. Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 89.
  • 32. Page, Geoff 2012 ‘A Lyrical Walk on the Wild Side’ The Australian, 28 April.
  • 33. Honig, Edwin & Susan M. Brown 1985 ‘Introduction’ to Pessoa, Fernando, The keeper of sheep, trans. Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown, Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, xi.
  • 34. White, Petra So Long Bulletin (accessed October 2013).
  • 35. Croggon, Alison 2012 ‘Poetry: Heteronymic Collections’ in Overland No. 5 (accessed 8 October 2013).
  • 36. Croggon, op. cit.
  • 37. Salom, Philip ‘Writing Through Heteronyms’, section 12 of paper published in this edition of Axon.