A Man of Restless Delight: The poet Peter Steele's territory of joy
On vacation in spring 2008, I happened upon a short collection of poems, “A Mass for Anglesea,” by Peter Steele, S.J., a longtime professor of literature at the University of Melbourne in Australia. There are 11 poems, each taking as a subject a different moment in the liturgy (the Gloria, the Creed, Communion…), and all of them set at Anglesea, a small community on the Southern Ocean.
Opening at random, I read this, the first stanza of Father Steele’s “Kyrie Eleison”:
Father of each, as of all, remember those Who are folded between our hills, in a little town Stiller, so far (we are grateful) than Bethlehem: As, Mr. Stabb the butcher; and the tousled boy Who sees you into and out of the video store; And keepers and pilers of cans in the supermarket; And the ancient sweetheart who sold me nineteen volumes Of knowledge pruned and compacted, for a song; And the moulder of surfboards; the framer of estates As things sublime and beautiful; and the girl Refreshed in her uncertainty by the boasts In gleaming journals; the tugger at lolloping dogs; The blethering wiseacre making his point at the pub— Same point, same pub, same audience once more; And the watchers, reluctant, absorbed, of white nights To no imaginable good; and the fishers. Be as you must the Lord of living and dead, And school us afresh, afresh, in the ways of mercy, Who remember a little, and confess that we forget.
Father of each, as of all, remember those
Who are folded between our hills, in a little town
Stiller, so far (we are grateful) than Bethlehem:
As, Mr. Stabb the butcher; and the tousled boy
Who sees you into and out of the video store;
And keepers and pilers of cans in the supermarket;
And the ancient sweetheart who sold me nineteen volumes
Of knowledge pruned and compacted, for a song;
And the moulder of surfboards; the framer of estates
As things sublime and beautiful; and the girl
Refreshed in her uncertainty by the boasts
In gleaming journals; the tugger at lolloping dogs;
The blethering wiseacre making his point at the pub—
Same point, same pub, same audience once more;
And the watchers, reluctant, absorbed, of white nights
To no imaginable good; and the fishers.
Be as you must the Lord of living and dead,
And school us afresh, afresh, in the ways of mercy,
Who remember a little, and confess that we forget.
It was the list of Anglesea’s inhabitants that caught my attention—the “tousled boy” at the video store, the girl with her diary, the “blethering wiseacre” at the pub. Iwas struck by the way Father Steele, with just a few words, could conjure and relish each one. I could see them all immediately and the place, too, a New England-like ocean town on a chilly, overcast, fall afternoon.
This poem went on for two more stanzas, one addressed to the Son and one to the Spirit, “Firebird, flambeau, haunter of all that is.” Each poem was crafted with a loving eye for detail and a wise humanity. And the set as a whole was like a walk through the streets of Rome, every turn offering something new to savor, no alley ever a dead end. One could wander the same passages over and over with delight for many days.
At some point I began to wonder, who is this Peter Steele?
The Child the Books Made
By December 2008, when I meet Father Steele in Washington, D.C., “A Mass for Anglesea” has been published as part of his latest book, a collection of new and selected poems entitled White Knight With Beebox: New and Selected Poems. In a Melbourne newspaper, The Age, the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe writes of Father Steele’s “hopscotch mind…the poems have as much dazzle as the strange title might hint at.” Martin Duwell, in The Australian Poetry Review, calls it “wonderful poetry.”
Father Steele, now Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University, is working on another book. Four cold, gray days before Christmas we meet. Father Steele wears a dark turtleneck; he has thick white hair and a soft-spoken affability. He grew up on the western coast of Australia in Perth, the oldest of three boys. As a child he was a good student, a “greedy, hungry reader” with an early desire to be a priest. In 1957 at age 17 he entered the Society of Jesus, moved to Melbourne and has remained there for most of his life.
At the back of a nondescript two-story building, Father Steele’s office at Georgetown is a small space with a desk, some bookshelves and a couple of chairs. An enormous picture of Pope John Paul II hangs on one wall; photos of other popes around it form a giant cross—a remnant of some former tenant. Other than the few books on one shelf and a small stack of his latest poems, there are no signs that Father Steele has been working here each day for the last six months, nor any touchstones that one might imagine a writer uses to help inspire his work. His office has less the feeling of a writer’s den than of a storage closet.
That is instructive, because as we speak it quickly becomes obvious that Father Steele’s mind is itself the treasure trove to which he turns for sustenance and stimulation. Stories, quotations, theories and references pour out of him on everything ranging from Anglo-Saxon language or the latest work by Seamus Heaney to the identity of Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash, the extraordinary number of first five moves possible in chess, the image of the fool in Scripture and literature, the challenge posed by the presence of the cross in every Christian celebration and the extraordinary pathos of Marcel Marceau. Father Steele moves from Ogden Nash to literary critic William Empson to Billy Collins to the Mona Lisa within minutes of one another; from the American bank robber Willie Sutton to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., to Samuel Coleridge to the poet Amy Clampitt; from Miss Piggy to Bernard Lonergan, S.J., to Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., to Paul Muldoon.
He summons the image of a boy eager to take you to see all of his favorite places and best friends. There is that same restless delight.
Father Steele was not much of a poet when he arrived at the University of Melbourne in the early 1960s to begin his humanities studies. As a Jesuit he had written some humorous verses, but nothing serious. The university, though, brought him into contact with Prof. Vincent Buckley, a scholar of literature and a poet himself. He was a short man, Father Steele remembers, “with a slightly excessive dignity,” “big, swept-back hair” and a strong sense for the dramatic. In a lecture he could hold the attention of hundreds. Part of a group of Catholics at the university who met to imagine their apostolate to the university, Buckley became a model for Father Steele, a mentor and a friend.
Verse, Father Steele believes, is often understood by society at large “in the mode of nonseriousness”; it is a playful, circus-like act, he says, in which elements like meter and rhyme constitute one’s “jugglery.” The reader pays attention to see what amusing feats might be attempted, how close to defeat the poet comes, whether in the end he or she succeeds (or surprises).
In his own work Father Steele embraces such playfulness, but with an eye toward uncovering the foolishness inherent in being human. We “boast a repertoire of finesse,” he writes in “Phantom Pleasures,” “but know that it peters out miles this side/ of omnicompetence, leaving/ a paper-chase of good intentions, a drizzle/ instead of Danaean showers.” Time and again for Father Steele, what makes us so delightful and also so damaging is our fundamental inadequacy. We are essentially “double,” he says; as creatures we ultimately cannot survive on our own, yet we run desperately from this reality. So, hearing of the discovery of ancient Scandinavian molds that allowed silversmiths to make either a Christian cross or an image of the hammer of Thor, or both, Father Steele posits, “It’s not hard to imagine him selling one of each to the same chap…just in case….” He laughs. “We’re all like that, all partly Christian believers and partly atheists. We all have double hearts.”
The sometime terrible consequences of that doubleness demand attention. In our conversations, it strikes me how often Father Steele returns to the topics of gulags, prison camps, the Holocaust (for him the starkest revelations of the horrors humanity is capable of) and demands that we not be naïve. “In the end one can never be too grateful about or too rejoicing in life,” he says. He calls himself “an applauder,” a “yes man”; he believes in the possibility of a heaven where “everyone will be saved, including the monsters.” But he reminds me, “You’ve got to make room for heartbreak in poetry that matters.” “Ice and snow/ bless the Lord,’” he writes in “Eschewals”; “but how give over/ the daily glazing of anger, the drifts of fear?”
A Rich Menagerie
But to read Father Steele is less to be haunted by inhumanity, though, than to be dazzled by his delight with the English language. Unusual, often melodious words abound—ascopia, lolloping, melaleuca, messmate, trunnions, faience. Father Steele likes to read science books for new words, and when he finds one, he speaks of trying to “give it a home” in his work.
Often the richest menageries occur amid lists, as at the end of “Snowballs”:
Wide-eyed he dreams Groats, the bollard, an oubliette, brioche, Sedan chairs, kir, the stirrup, farthingales. Hot on the trail, and chilled in all that fall, He grows more wieldy in the darkened years, Visited now by the zenith, now by polo, Toothpaste, soires, guitars, the subjunctive mood, Batik, a mazurka, pretzels. In the end, Old and childish, he lobs a perfect sphere.
Wide-eyed he dreams
Groats, the bollard, an oubliette, brioche,
Sedan chairs, kir, the stirrup, farthingales.
Hot on the trail, and chilled in all that fall,
He grows more wieldy in the darkened years,
Visited now by the zenith, now by polo,
Toothpaste, soires, guitars, the subjunctive mood,
Batik, a mazurka, pretzels. In the end,
Old and childish, he lobs a perfect sphere.
A list like this is “taking the animals on parade,” Father Steele tells me. “It’s not so much I know all these words (although it’s a bit of that), but look at all the interesting words that there are.”
At other times, Father Steele seems intrigued by the zany momentum that can be built out of widely disparate sounds and ideas placed beside one another. “Blessed are you who fit us all for naming” he writes in “Offerings,” “telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s/ corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way,/ spinnaker, follicle, Nome, Alaska:/ catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love,/ gaspers and megrims and the Taj Mahal,/ derricks, and El Dorado, and peach Melba.” Always what underlies is delight. “Making lists,” he says, “is as often as not an act of love. It is a love of the items, it’s a love of the words, and I flatter myself to think it’s a part of a love of God. I make lists because I’m in love with the plentifulness of things.”
On the Road
Father Steele has spent most of his priestly life teaching literature at the University of Melbourne, where he is now an emeritus professor with his own chair. But he has also held visiting chairs at Georgetown, the University of Alberta in Canada and Loyola University in Chicago; has given the Martin D’Arcy Lectures in Arts and Sciences at the University of Oxford; and has become a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
White Knight has brought him more attention than any of his previous books. He laughingly acknowledges that when he first began to write seriously, “publication” meant photocopying his poems. “I’d give copies to about 20 friends, and sort of psychologically I’d feel, well, they’ve been published now, you know?” Today the University of Melbourne hails him as “one of the most remarkable figures in Australian writing,” a man of “darting imagination.”
Currently Father Steele is working on a set of short poetic studies of scriptural characters. Many take place in a still point before dramatic change: the rich man Lazarus near death; St. Paul moments before his ship is destroyed at sea; St. Joseph contemplating the flight to Egypt and seeing ahead not possibility but “long nights of exile,” where “stand/ the palms of yearning for a promised land” (“Flight”).
Yet for Father Steele himself, being intellectually “on the road” is a natural and welcome state. On our last day together I ask him, having accomplished so much, what more did he wants to do. “I want to go somewhere I haven’t gone before, at least as a poet,” he tells me. “Bad books,” he says, quoting Carlos Fuentes, “are about things the writer already knew before he wrote them.” Good poets write to take a journey, “to see what will happen.” Father Steele has spent most of his life in one place, yet the sojourns of his mind have been numerous and the discoveries rewarding—“glimpses of the spacious,” he calls them, “the territory of joy.” And his readers are the richer for it.