A poet, a wise one, an elder.
Peter Steele was my teacher at Melbourne University. He was patient yet insistent, insightful yet light of touch, and encouraging at every turn, as he led his students toward their own personal experience of literature, while offering up his vast knowledge as guide.
I remember him smiling. Nodding. Demanding, sometimes. I remember how excited I felt to be in the office of a real, actual poet.
When I open one of his volumes I feel full of admiration for his work, but also bigger, as though I am amplified simply for having met him. Maybe we all were, those of us lucky to have had him make a note in one of our margins.
This is his, shared with you respectfully and lovingly – as he shared his life with his students. Sadly, I can’t show you how his eyes twinkled.
Upright again, fritters of mint in my fingers,
I’m given pause in the kitchen patch
by the car’s whine, the loud harrumph of lorries
that round the stand on Two-Tree Hill
and hustle past the boneyard.
I’ve taken leave of the Cliffs of Moher, the unsmiling
campus guard at Georgetown, the fall
of Richelieu’s scarlet enclosed by the London gloom:
I’ve watched my last candle gutter
for dear ones, back in Paris,
sung, as with Francis, the spill of an Umbrian morning,
each breath a gift, each glance a blessing:
have said farewell to Bhutan of the high passes
and the ragged hillmen, to the Basque dancers
praising their limping fellow,
to the square of Blood in Beijing, to the virid islands
that speckle the Pacific acres,
to moseying sheep in Judaean scrub, to leopard
and bison, a zoo for quartering, and
to the airy stone of Chartres,
But here’s the mint still on my hands. A wreath,
so Pliny thought was ‘good for students,
to exhilarate their minds.’ Late in the course,
I’ll settle for a sprig or two –
the savour gracious, the leaves brimmingly green –
as if never to say die.
I will be talking to Michael Cathcart on Monday 9th July at 10am (all over Australia) on Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily. We will be discussing Duchess of Malfi, which opens in Sydney on July 11th…