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Review: Anthony Lawrence's New and Selected Poems

UQP (1998)

If you enjoy poetry, rather than postmodern language puzzles as Anthony Lawrence refers to them in his poem 'Disaster Bay', here is a volume full of delights and surprises. In an early poem, 'Fuguing on the Bridge with Monet', Lawrence writes:

        Wherever I turn, poetry astounds me
        with its quiet visitations:
        water lilies, or the busy tail of a wren at large;
        a dripping brush or a blackened page;
        eternity is everywhere you look.

The strength, energy and extraordinary compassion of Lawrence's poetry is impressive; and it is reader-friendly without ever being shallow. Some contemporary poets write so ego-centrically, so cryptically, that the reader feels alienated and begins to wonder if the poet is from another planet. Not so Lawrence. He brings a wealth of meticulous observation and personal experience to his writing, through which we recognise and better understand ourselves. He invites the reader to share his vision, and to discover, with him, that World is suddener than we fancy it/ World is crazier and more of it than we thInk,/ incorrigibly plural - as MacNeice wrote earlier this century.

A recent article in the Weekend Australian castigated readers for their neglect of poetry; poor sales make poetry a gamble that few publishers are willing to take. So here's a chance to do your bit, if you have not already done so, and buy Anthony Lawrence's New and Selected Poems, which includes poems from his five earlier books and from his newest collection, Skinned by Light. Many contemporary poets are heard for a while - and then inevitably fade out, but Lawrence's voice, I feel sure, will endure. Here is a poet steeped in poetry, past and contemporary - obviously aware of a wide range of English, American and Australian poets of this century, and aware that he writes within a long tradition of wordsmiths. He is not a chopper-up of prose, but has an instinctive understanding of form and line, and a sensitivity to the music of words.

Lawrence seems to enjoy taking huge leaps to link ideas in unpredictable ways: a song on TV, in 'A Sapphic Stanza', to the beat of a waterbird's wings - trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee; say the words out loud and hear the wing-beats. Birds are clearly a passionate interest and fertile material for a number of poems, among them 'When we laugh crimson rosellas', a lyric that will most likely find its way into anthologies of Australian poetry in future - as will the darker lyric, 'Passover', a lament, to console a mother, for the child soldiers of Israel; indeed, for children everywhere drawn into war:

        When the cannons have shut their mouths,
        when the generals have torn their tired
        offensives from the sky, your children
        will be spawning love's indelible seed

        on the other side of what your life has known.

As well as other fine lyrics, including the beautiful 'Glass' sequence, there is his compassionate and powerful 'Elegy' to fellow poet and friend, Philip Hodgins in which the reader is taken inside the process of writing the poem. Lost in unknown farming territory, the poet probes the process by which the elegy arises through memories of Philip Hodgins and his poetry, images of the terrain through which he is driving, and later, the Grampians. Once again, bird imagery is significant and the poem

        ... moves freely
        unaccountably towards its end,
        through many versions, each one driven,

        by a reading of Philip's poetry, into
        the unmapped districts of this and future work.

Then, too, there are Lawrence's enthralling stories; traveller's tales of Ireland, Crete and Italy, in particular; stories about fishing off the West Australian coast and the long narrative poem 'Blood Oath', the horrifying, heart-wrenching tragedy of the two young jackaroos, their naive optimism no match for the ruthless, murderous boss. Grisly stories, like 'Mark and Lars' - Lars lost his head when hanging out of a train window - and 'The Art of Killing' in which a city boy learns the realities of slaughter on a sheep station. Surreal poems like 'The Wormwood Augury' about the small farming community decimated by disease and 'A Most Troublesome Possession' in which the presence of American poet, James Dickey, accompanies the poet on the long drive from Carnarvon to Perth.

Lawrence demonstrates an unerring sense of voice, not only in his 'Ratbag Monologues' in which he presents some of Sydney's eccentrics and vagrants, but in all his work where he subtly matches voice to mood and subject matter.

In several poems he plays light-heartedly with patterns of repetition: he pulls off a witty villanelle in 'The Bleeding Horse'; in 'The Queensland Lungfish' two lines from each stanza are repeated in the next stanza, and in 'Light', from his most recent collection, he uses the same six words, in various orders, at the ends of the lines in each stanza. His sense of fun and playfulness appears in the eminently readable sequence, 'Cricket' and in 'Reversals', among others.

Minute observation is a compelling drive in Lawrence's work: in 'A Day of Observances' he writes The plan had been to watch myself over twenty-four hours,/ dreams included -.../ Ways of seeing had been challenged, altered/ yet my reactions were lost in the work this involved. Further into the poem, he says, I had failed to observe/ all but the way imagination amplifies/ the blood-sound and vision of being alive/ without borders or assessment .../ His desire to make such a detailed study seems to find its ultimate expression in his prize-winning poem 'The Grim Periphery'. Densely packed with vivid image after image, it successfully recreates the out-of-control mind of the insomniac. It is such concentrated stream-of-consciousness writing, that I found it quite overwhelming - and not nearly as attractive as the rest of his work. Brilliant, undeniably, but somehow for all its pyrotechnics, difficult to enter, stand inside, or contemplate - I felt like a swimmer caught in a whirlpool, fighting to come up for air. The intensity of the poem is awesome, as the moment-by-moment thoughts and minutiae of life are piled up and tamped down into one long, four-page sentence. Possibly it's a poem which you must simply allow to happen to you - but I wanted to get out from under it and enjoyed his other poems in Skinned by Light, much more.

There are so many fine poems to indulge in: 'Toast', with its memorable final lines ...a wealth of melting butter on the crust! like the taste on the insides of a lover's thighs - (and there are other beautiful, sensual and erotic poems too); the compassion and empathy of 'Watching Dennis Potter Drink'; the indelible image of ladybirds, front legs/ working into the sides of their heads/ as if trying to prise tiny black helmets off ... in 'The Black and Orange Dead' and 'Thanatos' in which the poet contemplates the drop from a cliff in the Blue Mountains, standing between the need/ to live and the need to fall - and, like the currawongs in that poem, I'm sure Lawrence's readers will shout, continue, continue.