Not the Review
Readers of Australian poetry will have welcomed the appearance in recent months of a long list of titles from local publishers, among them a new Five Islands Press collection by Dipti Saravanamuttu. Her first book in eight years, The Collosseum gained shortlisting for the 2005 NSW Premier's Literary Awards (awarded to Sam Wagan Watson), and in August won The Age Poetry Book of the Year Award.
In these poems Dipti Saravanamuttu sifts through Sri Lankan childhood memories along with those of her travels in various locations around the globe - New York, Eastern Europe and here at home in Australia. The personal is always close at hand; the time the writing came hard ('You're twenty-one, that eloquent year / I didn't write a single line'), the heartfelt convictions that failed to last the distance ('At twenty-three, I truly believed / in wild passionate sex with you / for an entire lifetime - and / you didn't believe in wasting time'), the adult negotiations with her Sri Lankan heritage. Visiting her childhood home, the poet is inordinately glad '... that I still speak/ Sinhala with ease, can greet everyone/ as I would like to, where I wish..' Yet on her return to the island she feels to an extent estranged.
'... I'm greatly relieved that a distinction
exists, that people do not behave as though
I threaten them beyond existence. Perhaps
the point is this; that it matters less to them,
than to not intrude - to not bring your own shit
to bear on everyone and on everything.'
Saravanamuttu's concerns range from the metaphysical to the contemplation of small matters, the mildly sensual appraisal for instance of the qualities of lavender. Her poem 'The Figure of Envy', alludes to the struggle with a nature prone to envy, epitomised by the opening lines 'My head is invaded by stinging insects/ and a poisoned snake-mouth/ leaps and flashes into my darkened eyes.' In 'Revive', the poet writes of being overcome by grief
I had to walk to the Medical Centre, and twice
to the chemist with raging cystitis and no food
in my stomach, throwing up. I lived like this for days.
An illness brought on entirely by grief, as though
beauty were fleeting and charm were deceitful.
Thinking I was going to die. Some who knew of me
maintained I was having an identity crisis.
which, if one can make assumptions about the poems reflecting personal experience (always fraught with risk) might explain the nature of Saravanamuttu's endnotes in which she thanks those who supported her through the melancholy of an eight year break from writing. [What can it mean, personally, when one is no longer able to write? Under such circumstances, does one any longer say - to one's self, let alone others - 'I am a poet'? How tenuous a thread is it to cling to, this lingering lull till the muse returns?]
Despite these examples, it would be a mistake to suggest of Saravanamuttu's work a preoccupation with personal adversity. In 'Fragments' ('May those who love/ release the heart of a bird in flight'), 'Dingo Trails' ('Write of love and you'll find it, of peace/ and it is there. Perhaps we do exist as paradox,/ all accidental meanings considered;') and 'The Gift', for example, Saravanamuttu shifts registers to facilitate the natural optimism of a poet 'em>... bidden by the charm of life'
and her mother contemplate each other
curiously, out of identical eyes.
I look on amused, and then suddenly
embarrassed. Even my clearest lines
seem disconcerting; my failure at love,
at odds with my family. My erstwhile
illusion of belonging. The permanent
struggle not to hate with my entire soul
those who are cruel. There is suddenly
an innocent and separate kingdom to
which the tiny baby wholly belongs.
I hand back the pristine bundle,
wishing her love, and love of everything;
wishing her painting, sculpture, music.
A good surfboard on the clearest of oceans.
Language and all the gifts of the Magus,
all that unites earth and heaven.
(from 'The Gift')
(Dipti Saravanamuttu, The Collosseum, Five Islands Press, RRP $18.95, ISBN 1 7428 043 5)
Another recent publication from Five Islands Press is Ngara, an anthology of poetry, essays and meditations, and companion volume to the Fourth Australian Poetry Festival staged by the Poets Union in 2004.
Ngara's editors John Muk Muk Burke and Martin Langford invited both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal poets, novelists, historians and scholars to respond to some of the more difficult questions facing contemporary Australians: How might the non-Indigenous Australian be at home here? What might non-Indigenous cultures learn from Indigenous ones about ways of living in this place? What, if anything, might Aborigines wish to take from the various migrant cultures? What might they wish to keep and define as their own? Contributors to the anthology include Lee Cataldi, Louise Crisp, Martin Harrison, Barry Hill, Anna Kerkijk-Nicholson, John Mateer, Dennis McDermott, Alex Miller, Geoff Page, Peter Read, Henry Reynolds and Robyn Rowlands.
Anthologies and collections suffer from the weight of imposed expectations. Though we may browse through Saravanamuttu's The Collosseum because we've an interest in developments in the poet's writing, one thumbs through the pages of a thematic anthology with more explicit expectations, particularly with an anthology such as Ngara, testing the troubled waters of indigenous issues. [As it happens, one of Saravanamuttu's poems from The Collosseum could comfortably survive the transition to this anthology, 'Anatomy of the Perfect Delusion', written partly in response to Elizabeth Durack's impersonation of an Aboriginal painter, the fictional Eddie Burrup].
Given that storytelling is fundamental to an indigenous way of life, it's hardly surprising that in a book devoted to the discussion of indigenous issues, three of the anthology's standout contributions - narratives by Robyn Rowlands, Alex Miller and John Muk Muk Burke - are woven from the tapestry of personal experience. Neither does the selection of poems and essays disappoint. In his piece ['Polemics', pg 175], John Muk Muk Burke suggests opportunity be made available to study Aboriginal languages in schools; that there be public recognition of the Aboriginal flag; and consideration given to re-naming our highways 'song lines' with Aboriginal names. More controversially, he advocates a total withdrawal of white support systems from Aboriginal communities. Historian Henry Reynolds - in his contribution, 'Lest We Forget' - concludes that Black Australia has never been dealt with fairly and honestly because 'the border wars were about the ownership and control of land, about taking it by force from those who had been in possession since time immemorial....' Mark McKenna recommends the interpretation of his contribution as a conversation of hope, 'not by focusing purely on violence, or on the denial of violence. But instead by writing a history of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in which religion, the environment, the economy and all aspects of social and cultural history have a place.' Barry Hill's poems and essay form a retrospective reflection on aspects of translation, journeys and place.
Census figures show Indigenous Australians comprise less than two percent of the country's population, pointing to a lack of visibility that helps to explain why indigenous issues are for the most part overlooked. One might surf the internet in search of the 'official' view of multiculturalism in Australia and chance upon the Australian Museum's 'Dreaming Online' website with its seeming confirmation of Australia as a multicultural society. All well and good; representative of the standard line, and how we prefer to think of ourselves - an inclusive society. But to encounter John Muk Muk Burke's assertion that Australia is essentially not multicultural at all, but bi-cultural, is to appreciate that there's no unified view of multiculturalism.
Nor is Muk Muk Burke's a voice in isolation. Indigenous spokespersons have spoken out in other forums over the years in similar vein, including Miles Franklin Award winner Kim Scott, in The Weekend Australian, [24th-25th February, 2001]: 'Frankly, in any celebration of Federation, I'm tempted to get on the first vacant soapbox and get a bit cranky. Shout something about injustice. Say something akin to the words of a friend of mine as she stomped away from our primary school's "multicultural day". "First they destroy our culture and then they want to rub our noses in it".' And - different newspaper, similar sentiments - Jimmy Everett in the pages of Hobart's Mercury, [January 24th, 2004]: 'It may well be all right for the already assimilated Aborigines to celebrate Australia Day, but for those of us who are not fooled into believing things have changed for the better, it is invasion day.' Black Australian's disenchantment with the status quo is firmly entrenched.
The strength of the Ngara anthology lies in its capacity to bring together a brace of confronting contributions from writers I'm prepared to trust - that's the personal response! - writers who have won the respect of many for their efforts in generating dialogue within the wider community.
(Ngara: Living in this Place Now, edited by John Muk Muk Burke and Martin Langford, ISBN: 1 74128 070 2 RRP $21.95)
The Eureka Stockade Rebellion figures strongly in Australian history. Its memory conjures images of Peter Lalor alongside the blue-drenched flag of the Southern Cross, an historical episode regarded by many as a definitive moment in time for Australian democracy. At least two poetry collections with an interest in this aspect of Australia's history have found their way into print in the past couple of years, Miriel Lenore’s drums & bonnets (Wakefield Press, 2003) and Susan Kruss’ The Women of Eureka (Five Islands Press, February 2005). Lenore arrives at Eureka indirectly - her genealogical interest in the life of great-grandmother Lizzie begins in Ireland and deposits her in Ballarat sometime in the mid-1800s - while Kruss' strongly researched poems (as her five pages of endnotes, bibliographies and list of illustrations attest) present the stories of the women of Eureka in fine, imaginative detail.
Both books are aesthetically pleasing objects, Lenore’s cover graced by a Katherine Stafford painting while Kruss' polished effort extends to 106 pages which places it firmly in the larger-than-normal class of Five Islands Press productions. Kruss' manuscript covers territory not normally the domain of a poetry collection (though not outside its realms by any means: consider Jordie Albiston's The Hanging of Jean Lee, Karen Knight's Under the One Granite Roof, Adrienne Eberhard's Jane, Lady Franklin - and another Albiston collection and Kruss' inspiration, Botany Bay Document). The back cover notes to the book describe Kruss' writing as resonating 'beyond the known historical facts and myriad myths of Eureka' ... 'a testament to the potent combination of imagination, empathy and history'. The poems are commonly preceded by a few introductory words - 'The following poem is based on details given by Jeremiah Foster in his claim for compensation of 129 pounds and 4 shillings', for example - or, more commonly, a paragraph or two of background detail. 'Green was associated with promiscuity - green stains from rolling in the grass!' (pg 10). Lending emphasis to the poems are photographs and illustrations, documents and copies of personal correspondence.
Ever the genealogical detective, Lenore's focus varies from the personal and political (in contemporary parlance, both one and the same?) to the mildly sensual, as in ‘Art and Life’ with its hint of tension in the relationship between a parent and child. Whether it's of the skylark calling to mind memories of the cornfields and orchids of Armagh, or the lightly sardonic riposte to claims that in the town's gardens rich and poor together meet ('the cemetery has a better claim'), Lenore writes with deft and elegant ease.
If there's a point of intersection between these collections, its the experience of Eureka. Kruss' collection includes a 'Eureka Timetable' outlining events between 1851 and 1855. Her women are generally miners' wives and partners, though there are exceptions. 'Lady Hotham's visit to the Gravel Pits' speaks of the experiences of the Governor's wife while 'Government Camp' is written from the perspective of an officer's wife and presents an insider's account of the soldiers' and policemen's camp. The poem 'Trooper's Wife' offers an imaginative account of the fate of the Eureka flag after falling into the hands of troopers. Kruss' poems also include accounts of women such as Bridget Hynes, who prevents her husband from taking part in events at the stockade.
she hid her husband's pike and pants
before the gunfire broke their sleep
left him naked and swearing
enraged but alive
(from 'Bridget's secrets', pg 52)
In the poem 'Eureka', Miriel Lenore documents an experience comparable to that of Hynes and her husband. Lizzie's husband John is not at the stockade at the time of the uprising and in her reconstruction of events, Lenore makes a stab at explaining why. Again, it's the husband's pants that go missing.
John must have been at the meeting
the family story is clear:
though he planned to go to the stockade
he was not at Eureka -
his young wife hid his trousers
easy to sympathise with her
so far from home
married a mere eight months
she didn't need to be a martyr's widow
but could there be another reason?
did this daughter of Ulster protestants
take the Government side
against the miners' Irish leaders?
all we know is that John stayed home
The collections drums & bonnets and The Women of Eureka succeed in etching the lives that, though separated by time and circumstance, are not unlike our own in their essentiality. In these poems, elements of the creative and historical are woven in ways that bring to mind the words of Henry Reynolds to describe his role as a historian: as someone who lets his imagination fly but nevertheless remains holding on to the string of the kite, holding on to the truth.
Former Tasmanian Anne Morgan, now resident in Perth, has published a chapbook through Tom Collins House Press, Western Australia, entitled Echoes from the Firetrails. Reading these poems, for me at least, brings to mind Christine Anu's pop single 'My Island Home': though Perth may nominally be home for Morgan these days, one becomes aware of a heart still firmly fixed in her native Tasmania, sustained by landscapes of forests, mountains, lakes and beaches, and island relationships she's forged.
I dunk my floral spray
in a carafe of lucid water
and call this Spring,
and call this being home.
'Home' for Morgan encompasses the unique natural environment of Mt Wellington's 'otherworld' forming a backdrop to the city of Hobart - with its frosted branches and moss-sponged mounds, wattle blossoms and rainwooded shadows, bracken and fish-back ferns; its hidden world of furry shadows and brush-tail claws, mountain cockatoos and eagles, swamp rats and jenny wrens.... I'm tempted to suggest a Wordsworthian romanticism underlines Morgan's poems, and to an extent it's so; but it's not nature that's fully the focus of her attention. The poems have individual themes to play out, are just as vitally centred in individual lives and episodic events. The bush, too, isn't always the wild tangled mass it seems. In Hobart it encroaches on the city, in many cases to the front door. The poet drinks in untrampled silence - where there's 'No mechanical cacophonies,/ no Babel of smells and meanings,/ just the verdant taste of space,/ the slow rust of Depression history/ decked with necklaces of magpie calls' - in South Hobart's Old Farm Road, just two or three kilometres from the GPO.
Morgan's delight in nature is both incidental and insistent. It's in evidence in all but one or two of the pieces in this collection, and provides an added dimension to her writing - as in the poem 'Reflection', where the past extends forward into the lives of the poet's grandchildren's grandchildren through the agency of a moss-bearded apple tree.
but still its lichen-scabbed trunk
sluices sap to its branches,
seasoned with snow or blossom, or summer-leaf green,
raucous with parrots and wattlebirds,
then gravid with apples and children,
yet still the tree scrabbles, swollen jointed,
to survive my grandchildren's grandchildren.
The past is equally alive in the poem 'Hermitage', a reflection on the lifestyle of a hermit adrift on the mountain whose 'fountain pen floods out a frenzy of meanings/ gleaned from old newspaper stacks/ where swamp rats nest', where the Furies amass in the treetops. (And how typical of Morgan to invoke the Furies, those mythological daughters of Mother Earth personifying conscience). Simpson's donkey, a century adrift, also rates a passing mention, invoking memories of the past. And yet it's a collection whose terms of reference remain anchored in the present. 'Aeroplane Awakenings', the final poem in the collection, recalls the unwelcome intrusion of a fellow plane passenger into one's reveries at dawn, when the mind is lost in settings of colours and shapes 'of crevasses and mounds and waves/ that might have been Sastrugi ice'.
The present has a political edge for environmentally-sensitive Tasmanians ... and what are Morgan's poems if not sensitive to the environment? Her first book The Glow Worm Cave (Aboriginal Studies Press) was short-listed for the Wilderness Society's Children's Environment 'Book of the Year Award' in 2000. She's sympathetic to the concerns of local environmentalists and well acquainted with the perception common to mainstream conservationists that a sense of crisis exists, the sense (to quote Pete Hay) 'that there is a very short time in which the fundamentals of social existence must be turned around if lasting ecological damage is not the unavoidable consequence'. That she's written a collection set within the landscape she holds dear is indicative of a strong attachment to the natural world. That she's declined to point accusatory fingers at the social forces threatening to encroach upon it is testament to a gentle and sensitive soul. To forego political censure cannot have been an easy decision for Anne to reach, particularly within a Tasmanian context where conservation issues are on everyone's tongues. But in depicting Mt Wellington's resonant beauty bleeding inexorably onto the page, one's left in little doubt of Morgan's political commitment and primary concern. 'These are words and images of celebration,' I imagine her saying, 'this is what I hold dear'. From such affirmation, political movements take root.
I found the gallery one lost autumn
when wattles were tipping purple,
by tackling the switchback track,
where sassafras and dogwood
stood sentinel to a gallery of fungi -
I stooped towards miniature umbrellas,
shrunken and bleached by the ridgetop sun,
skull caps questioned by bullet-hole riddles,
sun-dried installations underbellied in saffron,
orange crinolines turning petticoat high
to the leering sun,
while ink dripped
regret on white-gilled claret tops.
And past yellowing hands of sponge coral,
and livers shrinking into shadows and liverworts,
I sat amidst staghorns rearing
over tables set for faerie feastings
by the straddling falls
of a time-slipped stream.
Among other books to have appeared in recent months are collections by Carolyn Gerrish (dark laughter, Island Press, 2004) and Andrew Lansdown (fontanelle, Five Islands Press, February 2005).
At first glance, dark laughter appears an eclectic mix. Gerrish references long-dead philosophers (Plato, Heidegger, Holderlin), classical musicians (Schubert, Handel, Schumann, Rossini), movie stars (Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep) et al. Her poetry reveals, among other things, a penchant for political analogy....
"the woman most likely" -
smiles from the window
of the second-hand bookshop
Yet the heart of this collection lies not with eclecticism but with its emotional landscape. Focussing on big-picture concerns - the effect on the individual of desire, of loss - Gerrish seeks to make sense of a life. Answers may not be readily forthcoming [why is it that situations we think we've healed are still there?/ Why is it we keep losing things which should never be lost?], responses may be neither wise nor considered, but that's simply the process and flush of discovery.
could you lose your obsessions? your dearest perverse loves
you talk about them endlessly
now that door's closed
(from 'Obsessions', pg 15)
Relinquishment of control is a recurring theme in Gerrish's poems; not the forsaking of a formal or technical control, but a loosening grip over events. [but you've lost the narrative thread of your life]. Equally evident is the urge to return to a sense of equilibrium. Soren Kierkegaard in his diaries likens the traipse back to the mainstream, to the heart, as a journey through a burnt and blackened landscape; and in similar vein the persona of Gerrish's poems charts her bearings by retracing her steps through places 'unfit for habitation'.
I am living a life I have no right to live
one day you took directions from the wrong person
to a place unfit for habitation you've accomplished
the voyage out but no vessel arrives to take you back
Lansdown's fontanelle isn't written with the same pitch of intensity as dark laughter. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, merely indicative of a differing approach. There's a contemplative quality to the poems in fontanelle, an essentiality Geoff Page refers to as the 'thisness of Lansdown's poetry'.
What does it mean, that
rejoicing in the steady rain
from the dark sky? What?
(from 'Dark Sky', pg 11)
Lansdown writes of a private rather than public world, an inner landscape detailing the minutiae of daily routine ... the dealings with wife, family and friends, the poet's delight (and focus of a number of poems in the book) in his young son's early years of development:
He waves now without being told.
But what sense does he make of it,
my small son, when he sees me
drive daily out of his life? I blow
the horn, flash the lights and go.
What does he think? Does he feel it
as a desertion? A bewilderment?
Last night in my absence he told
his mother before going to sleep,
"Daddy gone broom broom beep beep!"
To contrast Gerrish's urgency with Lansdown's meditative quality is to illustrate the difference between the two. Gerrish is the diver in search of precious pearls, content to surrender to the experience (if it's within reason) of whatever lies around the corner. (& you're mourning that loss of intensity/ the wave that carries you wherever it wants). Lansdown's the lapidarist, shaping and polishing his lustrous gems and seeking to extract the utmost from his material. Note the aesthetic focus of his concern with beauty.
It is nothing flash, the pale blue plastic jug
on my desk. But how beautifully it holds
those two loose-petalled pastel-pink roses and
that cluster of blazing-red pollen-lit gum blossom.
How it brightens my room, my mood, as I write,
reminding me of the things I am closeted from,
of that gungurru dropping its slender branches
over a wall by the footpath I walked this morning.
(from 'Blue Jug')
Lansdown manages this with objects, but pays little attention to the physical or charismatic charm of individuals, although - it is true - it's implicit within the poem 'Home':
And later tonight, before we join
the children in that no-place
of sleep, she might embrace me.
Or she might not. Either way
is fine. Tomorrow will be different.
Only her constancy is constant.
Two decades ago she vowed,
"With my body, my heart, my will,
I will." And truly she has, does.
Amazing! My wife. She's the one,
she's the one I'm going home to now.
Home. The place she makes
by being there. The place
that resolves the question, "Who,
who in this life will love me?"
The subjects of Gerrish's poems don't have the luxury of Lansdown's cushion of comfort. Lansdown's 'Who in this life will love me?' is much the same question Gerrish poses, but her answers aren't found in domesticity. When Gerrish writes of beauty, she refers more often than not to personal and physical charm as a veneer - one which hints at promise but that is ultimately flawed.
The very fact that the soprano lives. Is a kind of
perfection. And if you died listening to her. It would be an
ecstatic death. But is beauty the antithesis of truth? That it
can only be tolerated or appreciated. When dressed up in
its best clothes. In front of an adoring audience.
And what of the singer's real life? Has she charmed
the universe? So her life is chaos-proof? Has she never
had a headache? Been constipated. Never lost her
keys. Missed a plane. Worn the wrong clothes.
Or loved the wrong person.
Personal relationships intrude on Gerrish's appraisals of beauty, and there's a residue of pain involved. She writes less than Lansdown about the intimacy of family bonds, and more about relationships that though rough-edged are plainly workable, plainly rewarding; some too that are plainly unworkable.
remember how she changed her number never
answered your calls (you wonder at the ease
that a person can dispense with the past by
the use of technology)
(from 'Mountain High')
Gerrish exhibits a hard-earned wariness, an unwillingness - with relationships particularly - to repeat the mistakes of the past. In some passages, the experiences she describes are grubby and sordid or just plain appalling (you asked him where his wife was. 'Passed away' he/ sighed. later they told you he'd hacked her to death: 'Performance Unreliable'), and (her partner -/ huddled outside/ dying of AIDS: 'Gaol Poem'); and (some women can never be mothers because of the wounds/ of their mothers: from 'Performance Unreliable') - experience enough to send some to seek the comfort of religion.
But not Gerrish. Not overtly so, anyhow, not in these poems - which is not to deny a spiritual dimension to her work. I’m reminded of an interview some years ago with poet Chris Mansell seeking her attitude towards questions of faith. Mansell replied she was at a loss to understand what other people meant by spirituality - 'I don't consciously strive for a spiritual sort of approach, because I think for myself I can't divide things up like that.' – and there's a hint of this approach in Gerrish's writing, a sense of faith, hope and despair being implicit rather than objectified. Certainly she voices the hope of escape from the cruel, the mundane - i want to live in a world where everyone sings Schubert/ lieder & the voices go on & on to the glory of god or/ goddess (from 'Performance Unreliable') - but nowhere is the notion of faith as pronounced as it is in Lansdown's work, as - for example - in the following poem:
Yesterday, when I woke early
with that pain and got up and got
no relief, I thought of death,
my death. This is it, I thought.
And I felt grief for my family
and friends. My two young sons
especially - fatherless in their
formative years. But mostly
I felt shame, an overwhelming
shame that I would soon meet
my Saviour with so little to give
in thanks. Inexcusably little
Today the pain has gone, but
not the shame. Oh, dear Jesus!
Two books with different approaches; both enjoyable reading experiences for their introspection, honesty - and humour.
your taxman (who's in love with Elvis)
today he's unusually tetchy he's lost a file complains
everyone's come too early you tell him royalties for
your third poetry book amounts to $91.20
- My - he says - You have become a woman of means -
(from Gerrish's '412 to Campsie')
A couple of new poetry collections in the mail, the first books to come out of the Poets Union initiative, the Young Poets Fellowships ... Luis Gonzales Serrano's Cities with moveable parts and Lucy Holt's Stories of Bird. The aesthetic appearance of the books? Stiff covers, good quality paper, attractive typeface and print finish, thirty-two pages in length ... a welcome initiative, congratulations Poets Union.
Serrano was a founding editor of the now-defunct Melbourne poetry magazine Salt-Lick. Kevin Brophy in his back-cover blurb - Brophy was Serrano's mentor on the Young Poets project - describes Serrano's writing in this way: 'Every arrival has within it the grief of a departure, and Luis Gonzales's poetry is alive to these ambivalent and shifting meanings. The language of this poetry is direct, hybrid, buoyantly youthful....' Buoyantly youthful? Perhaps ... and yet at times the poems portray a world-weariness, a loss of innocence. What is markedly buoyant about the writing is Serrano's optimism, his capacity to overcome the promise that never quite measures up to reality ('churches offer paradise / while the fields burn'), the dashed hopes....
I know the dangers of collecting
flowers from graves
foreign to those of our families,
the idiocy of our comfort,
basking in wine, guitars and dance.
I no longer want to pray to these gods
that never listen
to lonely men and women like me.
All they offer our empty pockets
are the lies that carry us through tomorrow.
(from 'Standing scared')
Brophy refers to Serrano as a wordsmith '... who can tell for us the shape and texture of contemporary experience'. This is particularly evident in a poem such as 'Productive', where Serrano details in simple but exquisite terms the experience of life on the factory floor and the mindless subservience to a machine.
the gears sing louder
asking in low vocals
for more raw matter
we require no training
to gain fluency
in the machine's
Lucy Holt’s Stories of Bird is something else again, lending itself more readily to abstraction than to concrete images and terms. The poems themselves are deft, diaphanous constructions (Jordie Albiston, Holt’s mentor on the project, alludes to the ‘delicate & precise’ nature of Holt’s formal instincts). The opening poem – ‘Dying Bird’ – prefaces Holt’s thoughtful introspection which covers subject matters ranging through the collection from the intimacy of relationships to features of the natural world (birds, moths, spiders, slugs), to India’s Untouchables, to the epidemic of suicides of the Guarani tribe of the Brazil, to the autopsy of hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, and more. It’s poetry underpinned by a romantic leaning - "I want to be preserved with you like the lovers / in Pompeii, petrified in bed as two delicate spoons: ‘Unbeliever’s Fate’ " - daring to believe in the possibility of relationships standing the test of time (indeed, through the centuries). Holt is concerned both with the moment – ‘I am writing in bed and / you are lying beside me’ - and the referential. ‘We pass the strata of love-making: grass-level, / bed-level, plane toilet in plateaued flight.’ Elsewhere there’s the purely personal sense - ‘If you pass a silent corner you can unclench the heart, / you can try out death.’ – of finding one’s rhythm, denoting – for me, at least – a heart and mind in concert, a voice to inspire trust.
Holt tilts perspective seamlessly in poems such as ‘Grandmoth’ – "Its eye-forgeries see everything in the room: / where I see memories it sees a great feast." – and in ‘The Third End’
Just as bridges join two sides
in unholy man-made matrimony,
so is railing joined to riverbed;
cradle, bunk, beach-under-stars,
and the delightful ‘A Short Arachnid Study in Your Absence’ where
The spider aims high.
with one-eye-closed perspective
she can entrap the m’s
of distant seagulls,
Through her web is sky corralled,
geography organised into tessellations
of the spider’s own design.
Through her web your face is gridded:
I can plot your expressions,
Consume you in segments as if
I too were spider.
In the poem ‘The Question Followed by One Answer’, Holt deals with misplacement similar in statement and intent to Luis Gonzalez Serrano’s concerns in Cities with moveable parts.
He comes from a place
of graves far more complex than
a single tragedy’s shape.
Thousands of pairs of shoes
escaped a fate as if shoes
could be god-blessed.
In those poems dealing with exploration of urban experience, Lucy Holt's focus intersects with Serrano's concerns, display an intensity similar to that of the El Salvadoran-born poet. Holt's poems '... are a privilege to experience, their generosity & musicality complementing & complicating the reader’s own truths with each & every read,’ writes Jordie Albiston. Agreed.
[RRP for these books is $10 each].