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MARK O'FLYNN

Review, Louise Oxley : 'Compound Eye'

Five Islands Press, 2003
New Poets Program,
Wollongong University,
ISBN 1 74128 004 4

There is something strangely recognisable about the wealth of poetry that comes from Tasmania. Louise Oxley’s first book of poems, Compound Eye, published by Five Islands Press, joins this rich tradition. I come to this book again a year after its publication and find it still to be dense and rewarding with the qualities I admired in the first place. This speaks volumes for the shelf life of poetry, and the freshness of Louise Oxley’s poetry in particular.

Compound Eye, as the title poem suggests, is about the different sensibilities we bring to experience and perception. About different ways of seeing and describing what is seen.

An eye veils and pixilates. A wind
flicks open like a knife…’ (p. 9)

An unusual image. The book is about the clarity, or otherwise, of observation:

At home a fly would be ramming
the fists of its eyes into this glass. (p. 10)

As such there is a variety of subject matter, of style and tone, ranging from the exotic to the vernacular, including a tempered balance of science and mysticism, which Oxley pulls off marvellously. The poems embrace such themes as history, nature, family experience, the lot of women, among others. There is incident and anecdote aplenty, and even her perception of domestic scenes offers a profound and personal take on the ordinariness of ritual, so that we are invited to see the familiar in a distinctly new light, as in the poem Leaving the Room:

                          The word
goodnight is a familiar smell
that fills the room like orange peel. (p. 13)

As well as being strikingly original, the synaesthesic trope, like deja vu, changes the way we view the intimacy of the scene.

Oxley often uses nature as a vehicle to enter metaphors that examine a more emotional, inner view of the world. There are recurring images of birds, shells, the sea; yet beneath the surface is a deeper intimacy that implies the reader as witness. There is something in the delicacy of imagery that conjures Mary Oliver; an invitation to share a secret. Even, in this post-modern world, something as archaic - as deliriously romantic as the love poems she offers in Glove, or Love in Three Movements, almost make you feel invasive of someone’s privacy, as if you shouldn’t be reading them. But you do. And you return to them with a deeper preparedness to open yourself to the language. This is what good poetry is about. The passion and sincerity deliver more than linguistic tricks.

Yet within the elegant phrasing and structural confidence is also a concern with semiotics and etymology:

I have wrong words to meet you with;
the syntax of our once-love
is mistranslated in the heat. (p. 21)

This concern with the practical functions of language is integrated, sometimes oddly, into the tone of each poem. A paper nautilus becomes a seaworn lexicon. The privacy of experience is thrown open and becomes public property through language. It might be too much. The reader will decide. In the poem Bearing a Name, the nomenclature of childbirth undercuts the harrowing trauma of experience through the objectivity of language. Female experience is dealt with, as in other poems, in a manner whereby the minutiae of the image is opened out to a more universal and satisfying understanding. The distance of naming. This is the paradox of introspection; the smaller it gets, the broader the appeal.

I don’t know what it is that feels so distinctly Tasmanian about this book. Perhaps the allusions to climate and landscape, or something more inwardly focussed, but it is a peculiar quality, (within my gross generalisation), which I have learned to appreciate in the poetry I read coming from that state.

There is much to admire in the poems of Louise Oxley; poems which are lyrically confident, varied, and ‘well-travelled’. Her controlled use of language and tone make this a lovely collection to read and return toIt augurs well for the future. Compound Eye gives a fresh and moving perspective on familiar worlds, and leaves a lasting impression.