Navigation by Judy Johnson
- Five Islands Press, 2007
- ISBN: 978-0-7340-3756-5
In Judy Johnsons fourth
book, Navigation, she continues some of her exploration of both history and the
narrative that was evident in her earlier award-winning historical verse-novel, Jack.
Its not a new tradition
in Australian poetry. In one of the periodic cultural re-awakenings, in this case in the
late 1950s and early 1960s, poets like James McAuley, Francis Webb and others took on the
great historical stories of Australias exploration and discovery.
What is new is the re-emergence
of this narrative thread in Australian poetry in the last few years, led largely by women
such as Dorothy Porter, who have consciously tried to re-capture for poetry that
readership it once attracted and which has slid to prose; the joy of the story. The
impulse has been apparent too in the work of poets like Jordie Albiston (Botany Bay
Document), and more recently Diane Fahey whose latest book, The Mystery of
Rosa Morland, is a detective fiction poem set on a train travelling to Edinburgh in
1900. And the influence continues. A little while ago I attended the launch of a first
book by a new young Melbourne poet, Brigitte Lewis, whose lesbian narrative, Rubbing
Mirrors, is inspired by Porters work. Theres something happening here.
Judy Johnson has been part of
this recent push, but thats not to say that this new book is one poem, or entirely
set in the past. Far from it. The book is in four sections: Ties, a series of
short, intensely powerful poems and, to my mind, among the strongest things here,
Whale, the strongest contender for history poems here, Reason, a
series of poems including the narrative-esque The Last Tuniit and
Evanescence, a series of beautiful, intense poems of the personal past.
Johnson comes across in the
book as an ambitious and dexterous poet, brimming with ideas which can hardly be
contained. Its a rich and various book. If theres a criticism I have of this
book its related to that diversity, in that I found it a little difficult to find
the centre of it all, or something like the true voice, if indeed thats the quest.
The book is diverse and moves from the past to the present and back again fluently and is
as comfortable with the story as the lyrical moment.
I enjoyed the first section of
the book a lot. Ties is a loosely linked collection of poems of blood
and smoke and flame, to quote the epigraph from Houseman that opens the section.
Certainly, the blood is here, both in the connections of family and the loss and death
that is also strongly through this section in poems about the death of her father, or a
friend with cancer, worlds where the everyday is all suddenly hostile, As if the sun
is throwing knives.
In Paper Dolls from
this section, a young girl plays with her paper dolls while her parents argue in the other
room, theres the dramatic tensions between the surface and the interior that
reminded me a little of Margaret Atwoods writing about childhood and even in this
short piece theres control of the narrative too:
I hear the front door slam, my
mother crying in the next room.
Knowing its not really
true, I whisper to Una:
I hate my father and I love my
push hard on the perforations.
She comes away in two pieces.
Johnson has a facility with
such endings; they twist away from the expected, often in a short, indented, dark
These variations of death and
parting are themes that Johnson returns to in the final section Evanescence.
Indeed, these sections mirror each other to a degree and book-end the selection. These are
poems of childhood and play that have always a shadow behind them. Between the
lines moves from the musk-stick pink happiness of colouring
in to that sudden halting shift again:
The hand stills on the paper.
The dead, she says, are always green.
Malachite and verdigris,
leaf and chlorophyll.
The dead, she says,
dont stay between the lines.
Of the longer things that are
at the centre of the collection, I most enjoyed the exuberant ode of praise that is Whale Songs which first
appeared in Famous Reporter 35:
Praise the soft and shadow
filter that masks us
as we glide under atmospheric radar
Praise as pulsing wet we
stretch the rubbered light
over our triton backs
This is Johnson as celebratory
poet, navigator of the overflowing world. An earlier poem opens You ask me to
decipher its meaning and Johnson is at this again in Whale Songs.
Its no accident that the penultimate poem in the collection is called Things
to be Grateful For. This gratitude at the apparently ordinary objects of the world
is also evident in Three Tools', Johnsons Neruda-like odes
to Hammers, Rakes and a Saw which opens with the
whimsical, Something is falling in the forest. Indeed, Johnson makes her debt
to Neruda obvious in the very next poem.
I wasnt as convinced by
A Whalers Wife at Sea, a poem in five sections based around Ellen
Scotts 1886 whaling journey with her husband, but that might have been more to do
with my doubts about the narrative voice than the poems themselves which seem
scrupulous about their authentic detail.
When Geoff Page reviewed one of
Johnsons early books on the ABC he wrote, Its difficult to find a single
poem in Judy Johnsons first full length collection
that one would consider
typical. His comment points to the diversity and breadth of her concerns. Here,
its easy to be seduced by the narratives at the centre but it seems to me the real
strength of the book is the poignant personal moments of great depth that open and close
this collection. Johnsons fittingly nautical imagery of the closing lines of the
collection sell the book short:
I know its only
pretending to swim.
And its only shallow water.
But its more than enough
to carry our smallness
all the way to
where were going
Not so; these arent
shallow things. At its best, Johnsons book navigates the deepest and most perilous
waters of them all; the intimate layers of the heart.
Warrick Wynne is a
Melbourne poet and teacher. His most recent collection of poetry was The State of the
Rivers and Streams (Five Islands Press). His web site is http://warrickwynne.org/