Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2016

The Poets’ Stairwell (2015), by Alan Gould

The Poets' Stairwell Is poetry in a poet’s DNA? Or is something somehow acquired, when after trudging up a dark and constricted stairwell, the poet bursts into the light and sees with clarity?

Two Australian friends, Claude Boon and Henry Luck, take off on the Grand Tour of Europe to pay homage to the poets of the past, and to find their muses.  Luck is the younger, a scholarly genius destined for great things in the world of poetry, while Boon, the narrator, becomes less sure of his destiny.  Together they make their way through England, the land of their birth, and on to Ireland and Europe – from Greece and Turkey to ventures behind the Iron Curtain.

The book is subtitled a picaresque novel and the escapades follow the form but the novel has a coherence that I found missing from (dare I say it?) Candide.  Like Gould himself, Boon in Australia works at labouring jobs after he has finished university, and in the first moment of tension in his relationship with Luck, he takes him to visit the worksite where the particle accelerator is being built at a thinly-disguised ANU in Canberra.  Luck is forever insisting that Boon read this or that poet to plug the gaps in his poetic education, for Boon, achieving only middling honours in his degree, had spent some of his university years involved in politics (including the  1971 ‘Day of Rage’ protests against the Springbok Tour of Australia) and he admits later in the book that he had only read Dante in comic book form.  Boon demands a trade off:

‘I’ll read your Luc Courlai if you come over to Nuclear and accept a tour around my worksite.’

‘Why would I do that?’ He was startled by the proposal.

‘To sample the life that is still putting up a fight against being shoved into a book.’

My provocation was deftly turned as he splayed his fingers equably across the sheaf of poems.  ‘All existence must ultimately be contained in a book.’  After a suitable pause he added, ‘That’s Mallarmé.’

‘Turn up at Nuclear, you’ll see what I mean,’ I persisted.

‘See what exactly?’

‘The life that swarms above, below and beyond text.’

It was this phrase that I hoped would be the clincher, but I was taken aback by how physical was Henry’s reaction to my challenge of his intellectual being.  His shoulders drooped, he emitted a rather operatic sigh, I had a distinct feeling he felt cornered.  Must I admit I got a small satisfaction from this? (p.36)

Boon is baffled by Henry’s resistance to real life, and as they backpack through the sacred sites of English poetry, their friendship is tested by further disconnections.  Boon is a determined non-believer; Luck is sustained by faith.  Boon sometimes finds himself having to rescue the pair from Luck’s moral inflexibility; his assertive refusal to bend on issues that, when travelling, might better be managed with discretion.  Boon can’t understand Luck’s imperviousness to beautiful scenery such as the mountains of Switzerland; he spends his train journeys reading, reading, reading while Luck stares awestruck out of the window.  Luck – searching for the sublime – is plagued by doubt, but confused about what he’s supposed to like, as distinct from what he really likes.  He is moved by Michelangelo’s David in Florence but not by the painting of Delacroix in the Louvre.

I loved the sparkling wit in this novel.  One of the games played by Luck and Boon is to riff off each other with poetic images conjured by whatever circumstance they find themselves in.

We plunged into the alleys of a street-market just as squalls of warm rain began to beat down on the corrugated iron and tarpaulin roofs of the stalls.  The air roared, the tarmac hissed, pools and rivulets transformed the roadways and created dancing knives of light from the neon and paraffin lights.  Then, abruptly as it began, the rain ceased and we emerged on a thoroughfare where complex roadworks were in progress.  Monstrous yellow trucks, excavators and compressors impeded the thoroughfares, compelling the crowds to deflect left and right between the road workers in their hardhats and rain jackets.

‘Image for the road workers?’


‘Too late, ‘ he trounced me.  ‘They are echelons of tropical fish among coral.’

‘Of course.’

For it was a perfect image, shoal and eddy, highlights of yellow and orange amid the crowds of dark-suited, white shirted office workers, and the entire population seeming to move with the simultaneity of fish schools.  (p.46)

The motley collection of men in the novel are fun, but it’s the women of the novel who are a surprising bunch.  There is the iconoclastic translator Jelena, who at a poetry conference in Venice provides for the bemused audience a not-to-be- missed English translation of a performance poet who is speaking in …  English.  (Gould is spoofing inarticualate, obscure ‘poetry’). Branca, her lusty mother, provides the one sex scene in the book.  Eva Swart is a magical dancer, who at an Irish dance, picks up the moves as if by instinct, and then creates her own version which brings the audience to a standstill.  Loyal, pragmatic Rhee, provides a secure base for Luck even though her heart lies elsewhere.  Best of all is Martha, from Muncie, Indiana, who has left her job in plumbing because she has never grown out of her liking for school and got kinda itchy for some of the other stuff she learned back in skewel.  Henry, takes her up on her claim that when you travel, you come across places that kinda have no poetry and uncharacteristically patient with her, introduces her to Hesiod and she ends up tagging along as an enthusiastic pupil.  This poignant sequence, of a stolid, sensible person who transcends her prosaic education shows us another side of Luck.  She becomes his altruistic ‘project’ and these pages are beautiful to read.

The Poet’s Stairwell is a delicious book, and profoundly thought-provoking.  Don’t miss it.

You can also see a Sensational Snippet here. and you can read an excerpt at Mascara Review.

Author: Alan Gould
Title: The Poet’s Stairwell
Publisher: Black Pepper Publishing, 2015
ISBN 9781876044800
Review copy courtesy of Black Pepper Publishing.


Fishpond: The Poets’ Stairwell, and good bookshops everywhere.




  1. Oh my, it sounds wonderful.


  2. Coming from a completely scientific point-of-view (I study genetics), the question of whether poetry (or any other artistic talent) is in the genes is a fascinating one!


    • Nature or nurture? Boon’s father is reading Milton at the moment of his birth….


  3. Thanks for an interesting review. I’ve added the book to my tbr


    • Great! I’d love to know what you think of it:)


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