Review of 'Album of Domestic Exiles' by Andrew Sant

sant-cover This volume, Andrew Sant's fifth and his first for nearly nine years, confirms him as a poet of unusual intelligence and skill. As the title indicates, the poems are linked by the overarching theme of exile, but it would be simplistic to dismiss them as only about this. In his hands exile has many facets. The subjects of his scrutiny are exiled in time, as well as physical and mental space. And the range is broad, encompassing both the natural and man-made worlds: gardens, caves and forests, journeys, animals (domestic and otherwise), everyday artefacts. All are observed so minutely as to reveal a hitherto hidden, and often quirky, aspect of their existence.

These are rellections on visits to England from Tasmania, and to places, notably Indonesia, in between. Through the poems Sant explores what it means to live in the shadow (or perhaps the light?) of one's birthplace. Reading 'Shifting Furniture' I am reminded of a comment made by critic Andrew Riemer, another child migrant, that 'I am always conscious that my living here was the product of a decision made on my behalf' (Canberra Times, 9/5/98). Sant examines dis-junction and con-junction, dis-location and co-location, the fact of living with 'Familiar unfamiliar signs' ('Typhoon').

Predominantly intellectual rather than emotional, the poems are characterised by a mood, not of detachment exactly, but of emotional restraint. In spite of the fact that many centre on family relationships and close friendships, there is the sense of a distance placed deliberately between the poet and his subject-matter. They are indeed considered poems, experience magnified by rational hindsight.

Change, renewal and the oddity of scale are major preoccupations in these poems. Sant's mastery of metaphor renders it unobtrusive, he manages to do away with the now-naturalised metaphor of the future as forward and the past as back or behind, conflating the temporal with the spacial. In this way he probes our complex relationships with history and with home. He hopes, for example, that his parents' furniture will end up 'disencumbered by the decades removed from the eyes of my daughters' ('Shifting Furniture'), and discovers 'a hole surprised by loggers/toppling the future one afternoon' ('Taking my Daughter to the Cave'). It is in lines like these where he is at his most skillful; in the latter example the coupling of the casual language with an event of such moment makes it all the more appalling.

For the most part, however, the poems are suffused with good humour, with a largesse which equally accommodates the earthy and the elevated. There is an obvious love of wit, both as admired in others, (as in 'Vocal'), and as exercised by the poet himself, (as in the playful 'Blotter' and 'Elegy for the Queen's Head'). The conversational tone of the poems is deceptive, however. They can be so linguistically loaded that the reader is pulled up short by a dense line, often the last. Very occasionally, this doesn't quite come off, in the last lines of 'LPs', for example:

an eclipsed disc parade
when a die-hard fad's sacked.'

This seems to me to be just too tightly packed for comfort, positively tongue-twisting when read aloud. I wonder whether in these cases the idea isn't being strangled.

Otherwise there is very little that jars. Technically the poems are conservative – painstakingly constructed and carried by assured rhythms. His sense of irony and ear for the colloquial ensure that the tone is never pompous. In every poem there's something to delight, the senses apprehended with novel acuity, a surprise, a felicitous image: 'the slouched shed and delinquent fence' ('In the Garden') and 'the garden fork holding the soil in its place/ like an hors d'oeuvre' ('Days of Incompletion').

These are sharp, refractory poems. They glint obliquely. There is much to be discovered here, but concentration is needed to bring them into focus. I have to admit that I didn't warm to them immediately, but I have discovered that this is because they are poems which require – and reward – reading and re-reading. The best kind.