Review: Julian Croft's 'Ocean Island'
John Leonard Press, Elwood.
ISBN 0 9775787 3 9
I took Julian Croft’s Ocean Island away with me to the beach recently and there is something rather wonderful about being able to read poetry when you are relaxed and the world has taken on a timeless quality. I didn’t immediately recognise the author’s name but the production values of the book, from John Leonard Press, with its blue greasy cover and smooth slightly heavy cream pages, its layout and typesetting impressed me as I picked it up, weighed it in my hand and looked at the back cover photograph of a seemingly bemused, bespectacled author.
Of course I should have recognised his name. Julian Croft has been publishing poems since 1962 and his first collection, Breakfasts in Shanghai (1984) won the Asia/Pacific section of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. More recently I have seen his poems in collections entitled The Best Australian Poetry, so it is strange that I didn’t at first recognise his name. But then again there are not many poets who are household names in Australia. As an aside how wonderful to see Dorothy Porter’s new verse novel El Dorado with back cover banner proclaiming ‘from the author of the bestselling…’ Australia does not have many household names in poetry, maybe it deserves more. So what of Julian Croft, prize-winner, author of poems acknowledged as ‘the best’?
Taking Ocean Island to the beach was a good call. The seven sections speak of not only of the known but of the contemplated passage of time. From games of childhood, this Newcastle boy familiar with the industrial landscape past the surfer at the beach, to an adult’s place within family. His subject matter stretches not just upwards from the child’s perspective but also down through generations and across. Croft is writing about what he knows.
The first poems are grouped into a section named ‘Building on Sand’. Each having the word ‘sand’ in their title which sounds like a contrivance but it is not. However derived from the shifting sand of experience the poems are solidly engaged with place. Sand works as a metaphor, the poems exist in a reality of words, the smallest particle broken down from the rockbed of experience: the driftwood, flotsam and jetsam, clear air of life. In the opening poem ‘Sandpiper’ the bird ‘torpedoing across the beach/ a foot above invisible stilts’ is used as an allegory for the poet ‘defying gravity chasing something/unseen’. The next ‘Sandplay’ about taking a baby to the beach spends most of its length speaking from the standpoint of the adult, who gives us the commercial uses that sand is put to, a viewpoint accrued from years of contemplation and close inspection but it uses this to spring a surprise in the last line prising open the horizon of the poem to show the enormity of the beach as seen from the baby’s point of view (which I won’t spoil by quoting).
The next section ‘Industrial Waste’ had a particular resonance for me. His poems have reach, they come from experience, they are grounded, their aim is not mysterious. The poet, from Newcastle, is talking again of what he knows ‘the high-level bridge across the shunting lines,/ down, across the dockyard tracks, to the wharves’ [Timber wharf p20]. My own father worked around ships and on Saturday’s as a child I would visit the docks whether they were in Melbourne or the South Wales coal ports of Swansea or Cardiff with their huge dry docks, gantries, sheds, and wharves. Julian Croft has not just the vocabulary to describe these dirty, industrious places but speaks, with the empathy of an insider, of the people the ‘pinboss, coal-trimmers, shunters’ whose home this is.[Dyke end p19]. Here he is describing the colour of the air over the Works
Muck and Money p11
The pleasure in saying that out loud! Though the pollution would have lacked romance to the people who lived under it. He recounts this, less personally as our collective history in the poem ‘Cottage industry’
Cottage industry p13
The poems in this section deal with work related injury, metals, wharves and dockyards, they are powerful and heartfelt as the poet becomes archaeologist digging down to our most recent past. The post industrial age he contemplates is visible, not just as Newcastle after the Works, but as the wider issue for all of us to be in sight of a post oil world. Julian Croft is interested in the ‘covenant of soot’ and its aftermath, a timely question for all of us now that carbon is a global issue.
The next small section, just five poems, brings us the games of childhood not as we like to remember them but as we would prefer to forget. Here is the cruelty of childhood rendered in pitilessly accurate language. The word is a tool for the poet and here the tools are sharpened by childhood’s powerlessness. The first poem of the section ‘Simon says’ is particularly convincing, most of us will have heard the taunts the poet uses from childhood and they still carry the same dread when read even decades later.
I was less convinced by the opening poems in the section ‘Landscapes’ but this section does contain the anthologised poem ‘After a war (any war)’. As this may well have been read in a ‘Best of…’ there is little need to say anything about it except that this long poem, serious and personal, justly deserves its place in anyone’s ‘best of’ anthology.
In the following sections ‘Lakeland’, ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Window’ we return from West Africa back to New South Wales and remain there until the close of the book though the landscape is not just the lakes, the city and the country but the fabric that keeps us there, family and our longing to understand our place in the world. Again Differences has been anthologised and so may be familiar, here instead to show you what I mean, are the opening lines of Myuna bay:
Myuna bay p45
The Newcastle earthquake had immense coverage by reporters but now that the dust has settled Julian Croft, who was born there, has given it some thought. The prose poem ‘Assessing the damage’ walks us through the city a fortnight later to watch the demolition of the George Hotel. The form of the poem removes some of the constrictions inherent in lined verse but conversely does not impede the language from its poetry.
This is reportage but the images are so carefully constructed: the crab-like crawler like the crab eater beside Jerry’s Fish Café; the language so perfect for its purpose: how true that choice of the word ‘nuzzle’ as if the crawler is a powerful animal greeting something inherently fragile. Although it may take an initial earthquake, for a poet it may then take just one word to show the fragility of our built environment. The poem takes us through the whole demolition ending:
Again the clarity of voice and the meaning of the image built into the structure of the poem. Time has moved on from the George Hotel, the calendar flutters into the pit and the sooty past of Newcastle is long dead.
This experience that the poet looks through to the world becomes more apparent in the final section ‘Window’. There is more to this view than meets the eye and the titles of many of the poems give us a clue that he will not just be looking at the surface. From ‘This week a funeral, next week a wedding’, through ‘Fine and silent places’, ‘Marking Time’, ‘Child, father, man’ we are looking at the landscape of someone’s life. The season in a number of poems is autumn or winter. Even in the poem ‘At the beach’ where we know the season is likely to be summer we are looking back. ‘I knew I wouldn’t be back/on the beach until I had/ kids of my own for camouflage’. The poem ‘The Jordan’s other side’ surprised me. From the title and the cadence of the almost biblical opening lines I had an idea where I thought the poem would take me yet its true subject, the sea-change move of older Australians, allowed an unexpected crossing. Again Croft had taken something familiar to most Australians and shown it to us, the reader, in a clear new light.
The final poem in the book brings us full-circle and we are back assessing life lived close to the water and contemplating waves: ‘surf, on a reef, on a beach, even in open sea, is the wave/ made visible’ [Making waves p83]. His writing belies the precision of his craft which is akin to a surfer waiting on his board, unseen knowledge of the mechanics of wave formation, the precise, intuitive, seeming ease or inertia that is alert to possibility and chooses the precise moment to ride the surge. At this point I am reminded of the acoustic mirrors that were set up at a beach in the U.K. before the advent of radar to listen to the traffic of the channel for the waves he is deeply conscious of are the invisible waves ‘where energy passes from one state to another’ [ibid] until at the end of the poem (which closes the book) it has become synonymous with the verb ‘to be’ ultimately cancelling itself out ‘until it disappears exhausted/ in the static of a point’. [ibid p84].