walleah press

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Review: Louise Oxley's 'Buoyancy'

Five Islands Press : 2008

Buoyancy is Louise Oxley’s second collection but first, full-length book of poetry. The unpublished manuscript was short-listed for the ArtsATC Alec Bolton award under the title open water.

Her first collection, Compound Eye, was part of the Five Islands Press New Poet Series 2003 and was commended in the Anne Elder Award.

Louise Oxley has been a contributor to the poetry scene in Australia for many years. She has served on the boards of Arts Tasmania and the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre and is one of the current editors for Blue Dog, one of the few literary magazines to take the bold and admirable step of reading its poetry submissions ‘blind’. It’s not surprising then that Oxley values the similar perimeters that competitions provide, she has been the recipient of an impressive list of poetry awards over the last ten years including the Banjo Paterson Award, the Henry Kendall Award (twice), the Tom Collins Award, the Bruce Dawe Prize (twice), the Melbourne Poets Prize and the King Island Literary Award.

The poems in this collection are amazingly eclectic, linked by commonality of language that is both intelligent and finely tuned. Subject matter ranges from personal reflections of childhood and love, to Norwegian expressionists, Paleolithic cave artists and the study of plankton. The 52 poems are divided into five, loosely thematic, appropriately titled sections: Surfacing, Line of Sight, Division, Extraction and Buoyancy, establishing a consideration for the reader that prevails as sense of inclusion, setting the tone for this collection. It’s difficult to pin down how the book achieves such an air, but I believe it’s simply the combination of technical competency and judicious handling of theme that invites a level of engagement, rendering the work personally relevant. The narrative of subject and experience is delivered in a style that is devoid of self-importance, with the subtle but powerful result of encouraging empathic reading.

The natural world is a major source of Oxley’s inspiration, explored with tenderness that never lapses into sentimentality. The opening poem Surfacing p13, titled with reference to watching whales off the Head of Bight in South Australia starts

Here’s where the Nullabor stops.
As if it suddenly forgot itself, the land
falls into the sea and I am groundless.
You are too, but you belong there;
you come out of the blue like a dreamer from sleep,
breaking from its lilt and swing, lift and sink…...

and a few lines on,

in barnacles, breaching worlds,
you are all collision, elision,
a balancing act on a fluke, a moment of trance,
an evolutionary quirk.

These first lines carry within them a taste of what is to follow: delightful double-dipping use of vernacular, alliteration mingled with onomatopaeic effect and a lyrical confidence that infuses the work, the poem continues with one of the collection’s trademarks; the canny hyphen

Wing-tipped, lick-slippery, slick-smooth
you take each other face to face.

and ends with the promise of another, honesty:

……..and I wish I, like you,
were a thing of the past.

Combined with the precision of meter and rhyme used in some of the more traditional forms of verse these qualities result in a poetic integrity that leaves no doubt as to the collection’s importance.

Buoyancy boasts a swag of formal verse, which is pulled off with skill: two sonnets, two villanelles, a pantoum about a father near death, Blood Moon p65 that also displays proficient use of sustained metaphor with stirring effect, and a rare and wonderful beast; a sestina that makes sense, and in so doing becomes a moving love poem seemingly unaware of the rigidity of its repetitive confines. Blaendigeddi won the Melbourne Poets Union Prize and is the second poem in the suite Border Country p82.

The collection contains a wealth of information that has been painstakingly researched with intriguing results. The Radiolarian Atlas p42 is a poem inspired by a book written in 1862 of the same title containing illustrations of the minute protozoa that make up plankton. An image of the detail of one of these minute organisms by Hobart painter Sue Anderson is an appropriate front cover for a book in which so many of the poems focus the microscope as a tool for amplifying issues relevant to the full mystery of life. The Radiolarian Atlas typically employs descriptive detail, in this case of an unlikely and original subject, plankton, not only as a celebration of nature but as a means to explore experience. It’s always exciting to discover new words and this poem also introduced me to one of the most thrilling, guddle; to grope with the hands for fish, a marvelous word that says it all, as does Oxley’s creative use of the hyphen, most commonly as a lyrical aid simultaneously either reinforcing image or condensing information. My favourites have to be

Fred’s pony, winter-rumped with a coat the depth of a hand,….
… that steady sharp-eared leaning look of hungry ponies.
                        from Horsetails p26

…..that bold belligerent
chip-stealing beauty……..(of gull’s eyes) 
                        from Silver Gulls p27

the marvelous swag-bellied mares of The Joy of the Painter of Lascaux p35 and the opening lines of Beelines p75

So this is the noise earth makes, turning again;
this fine-tuned, coming-in-to-land, abdomen-down
heading into blossom, threads of drowsy sound
shuttling towards and away in almost-unison,
each steady furred excursion into talc-scented pollen
ending in intimate probe and suck

The poem continues as a steady fourteen line buzz. Similarly Walking to Witch’s Leap p18 takes the forty-four line journey as a meditative descent, interrupted only by commas and a couple of semi-colons, combined with that clever hyphen to provide an energy that positively bowls the poem along, ending with a break in the reverie, not uncommon in Oxley’s work, and turn of phrase that in this case asks a question of etymology

I might remember mist sinking
into the valley, and I might ask myself
how we’ve ended up saying end up.

Such sudden, seemingly casual reflection or questions encourage implicit involvement and Oxley uses the device with remarkable effect on several occasions. Silver Gulls p27 pauses in its contemplation of gulls on a winter’s evening with an abrupt change of mood, sanctioned by the immediate return to it, and the one liner

How far would you want to go, if flight were effortless?

In Things to tell you: day 193 p80, a love poem that was runner up in the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize in 2007 written with a stream-of-consciousness, epistolary feel, on observation of a pair of oyster-catchers the poet stops us, in her tracks

The cove was mirror still.
A pair of oyster-catchers flew in, red-beaked, red-legged.
They probed and prodded the shallows.
It’s funny they’re called oyster-catchers -
oysters don’t take much catching.
Those birds don’t wade, either, come to think of it,
not like we do, dragging our shins through the water;
they step in and out of it, high and ladylike.

Oxley invariably enlists the architecture of a poem to echo its theme. Ordinarily as a non-cat lover I might feel impartial about a poem that pays tribute to a cat’s coat, (The Coat p25), but when the study begins

This is strict counterpoint: stave and fiddle-back,
silks waved or watered, a fingerprint,
tidemark and sea-wrack, topaz and jasper,
licorice and toffee, wheatstubble over loam

I find myself riveted by the 26 lines of words as dense and tightly woven as the coat itself. Wandering off p58, a pictorial poem that won the 2008 King Island Literary Prize, comprises nine four lined stanzas that gently wander across the page, a presentation that transforms observation into open-ended suggestion. Baby, cradle and all p55, expressing the fears of a mother as she watches her child play in a tree, evokes the format of the well-known children’s picture book Peepo by Allan and Janet Ahlberg and takes its title from a line in the nursery rhyme Rock-a-Bye Baby with poignant effect.

But it’s the deft-dealing with simile and metaphor and the powerful imagery that, for me, makes this collection special. One Tuesday p50 charts the destruction by fire of a family home and the resultant despair of its owner, it is impossible not to be moved

In the close-aired living room, smeared
with the sour fear of horses, he faced us empty-throated,
his eyes as dull as pumice stone.
Helpless witnesses, his broken-spirited hands
opened and closed on the things he could not save.

And later in the poem

…………Under the old wattle that once
seemed to part like lazy thighs,
the seat was burned off the swing.
Here, skirts fluttering, we had swooped and sung,
making of ourselves a pendulum for losing time.

When presented with a fine collection of poetry I find myself overwhelmed by a chocolate-box temptation to pick a favourite. I can’t resist and mine has to be The integrated shark p20, a taut, lithe poem that attracts attention from the first, flowing on to mesmerise with its abrupt turns in train of thought, and ultimately hunt itself down.

I find myself gushing: this is a poet in whose hands you feel secure, which is not to imply that Oxley is afraid to chart the emotive, dangerous waters of personal loss and reflection but that she navigates them with the developed repertoire of a skilled poet, and you are saved from any disappointment. The book is appropriately titled, the well-developed sense of lyricism alone is enough to hearten and inspire.


CAROLYN FISHER moved from the United Kingdom to a quiet corner on the northwest coast of Tasmania some years ago. Tim Thorne launched her first collection, The Unsuspecting Sky (PressPress) in October 2008.