Puncher & Wattmann, 2007
When Peter Porter noted the brilliance of Philip Salom’s poems and said they were unlike anything in Australian poetry, he was referring to Sky Poems (1987), an ironic otherworld of the twentieth century and the first book of the Alterworld trilogy. Salom later added The Well Mouth (2005), an underworld of limbo and stopped-life to counter Sky Poems’ endless possibilities. Now the accidental realities of Alterworld reach into the twenty-first century but remain haunted by Salom’s ambiguous visions of life and death. The poems have satirical verve and sensuality, and are layered in surprising linguisitic echoes; his imagination is almost architectural but also acutely social. Alterworld is extraordinary and unique.
Philip Salom’s Alterworld is like life with the boring bits taken out
Philip Salom’s almost overwhelmingly intense trilogy Alterworld combines his 1987 work Sky Poems, The Well Mouth from 2005 and a collection of new work called Alterworld (Puncher & Wattman). At its simplest it is a kind of reversed version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, moving from a meta-paradise down into a murky underworld and emerging into a world that is rather like everyday life, but with all the boring bits taken out.
Sky Poems imagines a clamorous, overlit “paradise” where all wishes and desires are granted. This is a long way from the pallid herbal tea version of heaven or nirvana that people generally hanker after — there is no morality or reward involved, just actualisation (so in fact it’s a very 1980s heaven).
The dead come back to life, the sick are cured, but always ambivalently. There is passion infidelity, vanity, cupidity; all indulged but often unsatisfyingly shiny. There is cosmetic surgery, wealth and ostentation, but also lightness, colour and flight.
In The Well Mouth there is no colour, no light, and only a murmuring, reluctant kind of life. At the bottom of Salom’s well a murdered woman lies in a ghostly oubliette, acting as a seer and guide to the dead, as they explain their deaths and she absorbs their deaths into the underworld. The dead might seem like grey shades but their deaths have tremendous force, whether accidental, pathetic, or gangsterish and televisual.
The energy generated by their fierce honesty and the well woman’s divinations belies any sense that this is a limbo like the one inhabited by unbaptised babies or virtuous pagans. These people aren’t milling around waiting for anything: they are still fully occupied being themselves. In fact, strangely, it feels more the island of the lotus-eaters in The Odyssey than the eternal Sunday afternoon that Persephone chafed against every year.
This sense of lightness amid sadness flows through into Alterworld, the newly completed third part to this trilogy. After the unreality of the desiring sky and the narcosis of the underworld, there is nowhere to be but the world. But what is a world?
Salom’s is a world of everyday moments, exact and poignant but washed over with a very thin coat of underworld varnish, and of culture as a way of looking and being, and aspiring. Cinema, music, even pataphysics, act as lenses to both focus and diffuse. The first two books seemed to clatter against each other, like two spanners in a box, but Salom has, with this addition, leached some of the clamour from one and the dolour from the other. The Alterworld rings true…
Peter Keneally is a poet, writer and reviewer
Praise for Alterworld
There’s a huge and complex imagination at work here: with worlds as tightly plotted as that of any speculative fiction, and stories that drag us in, attract and repel at the same time. Once you’re sucked into these intimately related, but different worlds, it’s hard to look at life around you in quite the same way…
The writing is powerful, elemental, and often beautiful. Though I think that each of the books is powerful in itself, having these three together creates a far grander picture, where each poem is informed by, changed, and strengthened by those around it. So we understand this imaginative work to be a multiverse, rich with hell and heaven together, and also our daily struggles – love, death, desire, and loss. It’s quite the undertaking, and Salom does it exceptionally well.
Magdalena Ball, The Compulsive Reader
Two major books, Sky Poems (first published 1987, FACP) and The Well Mouth (2005, FACP) are reworked, and a new collection completes the three.
The connected work that the triple-composition of Alterworld now represents deserves serious critical engagement. More than that, it deserves a wide readership willing to live with, and in, poetry of impressive scope and genuine humanity
Graeme Miles, Cordite Poetry Journal
Many of the poems are powerfully timeless, and layering them in one volume highlights that though our world may have altered in the past thirty years, we are still grappling with familiar questions and concerns. Recurring motifs include night, electronics, vehicles, engines, houses, birds and blood, and so Salom brings alive our twenty-first century society with a gothic, steampunk flavour. He represents a world deeply grounded in language, with meta-textual poems implying that words can be both nurturing and destructive. Indeed, the language is figured as the material of mortal life.
Amy Hilhorst, Westerly