The Good Oil of Reading


[Older poem of mine about my addiction to reading. Books. Maybe topical in the screen-skimming age. I’d argue you can’t really read layered, complex texts like poetry, novels, philosophy on screen because your eye has no spacial coordinates and you’re not touching it. You tend to quickly skim the surface for ‘information’. Poetry is not ‘information’. Reading deeply needs the feel of paper in your hands. Needs time, slowing down, solitude, no distractions. Third stanza: I lived my teen years near Parramatta Road in Sydney; Phar Lap was a famous Australian racehorse; Lawrence is D.H. Lawrence, favourite author of mine in my teens; Lawson is Henry Lawson, famous Australian writer of the 1900s. Photo I shot in Melbourne five years ago near the marvellous and unique Collected Works poetry bookshop off Swanson Street.]

The Good Oil of Reading

Might have been the German alphabet book
your mother read out, that puckered yuck
sound O-Umlaut for oily Öl resonating
with the forced spoon-feeding, the eating
fuck-up you happily prolonged shovelling
in stuff alone, your mind on Superman, Tarzan
swinging through the white wireless
in welcome frequencies far from home.

Might have been the cutely sinister
illustrations in the fat Grimm grandma
read out where you entered weird spaces,
soldiers in Napoleonic uniforms flew
through the air on cannonballs, or green
dragons offered golden-tressed maidens
golden balls in their crocodile mouths
or tailed & suited red devils boiled
badly shaven highwaymen in vats of oil.

Again, might have been Mac’s long list
of must-read novels in fourth year high.
The challenge thrown down on pitted
polished desks, the midnight oil of dedication
needed to enter the secret fraternity called
Eng Lit, pipes, tweeds, whiskey in oaken
studies, leather armchairs soft as sex
or containing mothers, an ‘England’
of the thirsting mind as unreal, as far
removed from Parramatta Road & Phar Lap
as Lawrence was from Lawson.

Or might have been the first time
you walked into Tyrell’s, fifteen, alone
on a Saturday morning, virginal
as olive oil, hot under the collar, itching
in your new tweed jacket, caught the smell
of used books stacked to the ceiling, dim light
through some unnoticed vent, crooked
your head sideways reading spines
spelling other worlds spinning giddily,
open unknown horizons, promise, depth,
distant galaxies of word & thought
(your head still crooked, antiquariats
still beckon more than sights or ruins).

Might even have been the French cookbook
you bought on your tired way home
to Kangaroo Street & never tried
to cook from, imagination sexier than sauces,
fecund phantasies leaving food for dead.

Might have been the hot speeches, debates
in smoke-filled halls, rooms, the bounce
& clash of minds & egos adding
theory’s oil to the body’s fierce fires,
promising promise, a final great turning
over of the moneylenders’ tables, &,
with luck, an oily massage of some sexy girl.

Now, it’s the dimming time of world & eye
& still word & mind outpace, out-thrill
birdsong, sun on skin, an old red playing
music on the wide scales of throat & tongue,
the good oil of wisdom still as far off
as the fiction of an horizon, forever lost
& happy on troubled waters calmed
by the clear light oil of reading.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 23, 2015.

4 Responses to “The Good Oil of Reading”

  1. Did you ever read Etruscan Places? I loved that one and Mornings in Mexico. Great travel writing.

    • Nope, never did read those Dave…Sons and Lovers and Women in Love and several of his poems were my favourites…Have never really got into travel writing

  2. Agree with you absolutely, Peter, about reading on the paper page. My eyes tire quickly on the pixellated screen, which only ever provides an approximation of the printed page, just as digitally recorded music only ever approximates to the analogue version, so I’m told by audio buffs.

    I enjoyed your poem a lot and it encouraged me to reflect on my own relationship to reading, which has never been an obsession of mine. I got started with Little Golden Books and comics, which I enjoyed, but somehow they didn’t lead me to non-illustrated texts for a long time. Then at school reading became a means to an end ie study, rather than a great pleasure for its own sake. I don’t remember Mac’s long list of must-read novels. I didn’t really come to the novel seriously until uni – wasn’t ready for Lawrence until then. And for me it was Ashwood’s rather than Tyrell’s that got me excited – for non intellectual reasons, ça va sans dire.

    In “retirement” I’m beginning to treasure long spaces of time with a book. Currently enjoying Patti Miller’s memoir “Ransacking Paris”, about her year in Montmartre in the company of Montaigne, de Beauvoir, Rousseau et al.

    My father used to say that some bloke “gave him the good oil” on something, meaning gave him useful information.

    As usual your poem is a satisfying blend of the solid and the imaginative image / metaphor, and self-revelatory ironic humour. The final stanza is especially poignant for me.

    Keep up the good work,


    • Thanks for the comment, mon ami. Glad I’m not alone with my paper v screen argument (there’s a bit of research out there supporting it too, BTW; have read Nick Carr’s The Shallows and Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change with great interest). I enjoyed comics too, remember The Phantom most for some reason, but the comics were mainly at other kids’ places… What was Ashwood’s, a book shop? And thanks for the encouragement, too.

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