Review: Anthony Lawrence's Skinned by Light (University of Queensland Press, 2002)

Skinned by Light - of course for a book by a Tasmanian resident it should strictly be entitled Skun by Light. But Anthony is still a comparative newcomer to these shores, so on this occasion we’ll overlook the lapse. But don’t let it happen again.

If we compare this new volume with the earlier edition of Anthony’s selected we notice if not a unique, at least a remarkable thing: this new edition is smaller. Count the pages, measure the dimensions, weigh them - there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a smaller book. So I’d urge you to buy it now, just in case the third edition continues this trend and begins to explore the realms of negative pagination.

However, I’ll take the hint from Anthony’s conciseness and not drag this introduction out too long.

Philip Larkin said once in an interview that one reason for writing is that no one has written what you want to read. Or to put the case a little less starkly, you write - if you are a poet - in order to discover the poetry which only you can write.

But / if that is one reason why a poet writes poetry, one reason that a poet continues to read poetry is perhaps the opposite: it is to appreciate the poetry that you can’t write. As Chris Wallace-Crabbe put it, you seek out the poets who ask the questions you can’t ask.

And that is one of the reasons that I so much enjoy reading Anthony’s poetry. It asks the questions I can’t ask, coming as it does from a sensibility and imagination which engage with the world so differently from my own.

I’m reminded of an interview I heard on ABC radio between Anthony and Michael Cathcart about one of Anthony’s irritatingly frequent prize-winning poems. I couldn’t help thinking - and I hope Anthony will take this in good part - that it seemed indicative of his approach that while driving to Queenstown he conceived a poem about himself driving to Queenstown, and proceeded to compose it while driving to Queenstown. If it had been me, I’d have jotted down a note when I got to Queenstown and put it in my drawer when I got back to Hobart and several years later... etc, etc.

The point I’m making is about his energy and immediacy and immersion in the ten thousand things of this world. I find that exhilarating.

No doubt there are many qualities which go to make up the successful poet. But in essence, it seems to me, there are two things to look for. The first is purely linguistic: the ability to use language in ways that are memorable and vivid and new. And the second is - what shall we say? - architectural: how does the poet construct these "verbal contraptions", as Auden called poems? Do they make satisfying works of art?" The two gifts don’t always go together, at least not in equal measure.

Anthony succeeds in both these aspects. Not having time to read you whole poems, I can’t demonstrate the latter - though perhaps he’ll do that for me when I finish this speech.

His ability to use language in arresting and exciting ways is evident on every page. One could quote at random

From "Tawny Frogmouth":

Now I am wearing the scribbly gum’s
difficult hieroglyphics on my wings...
When you go out at night,
my shadow is the blown hem
of a child’s coat...

of a tiger in "The Keeper and the Kept":

Born into captivity
she paces the length of Sumatra.
From the same poem, an eagle’s wings:

pinned to a cageful of sky...

(By the way, there is surely a thesis in his avian imagery alone, particularly the leitmotiv of crows and ravens.)

The drinking men in "Cold Wires of Rain":

the heads of their pints blistered with rain.

But it needn’t be a specific image. A sentiment can be expressed as memorably and acquire lapidary force:

The need to name what we leave in the world grows wild
                                in us.

In "Strategies for Confronting Fear" he even identifies the process he performs:

... I wait, tense and silent,
for a change to record

how imagination can make durable, singular,
fragments from the most common of scenes.

Here is the poetry enterprise in a nutshell. In the end poetry is not simply a way of saying, though it is certainly that. It is also a way of seeing, and perhaps a way of being, of being at a certain angle to the world and to experience which, when it works, enables one person in fact "to name what we leave in the world" and "make durable, singular, fragments from the most common of scenes". And Anthony’s poetry does that.