With five examples in the recent Lehmann/Gray anthology, Australian Poetry Since 1788, Tricia Dearborn’s poetry is now attracting the attention it deserves. Though The Ringing World is only her second book of poetry, Dearborn already possesses the maturity and poise of poets with much longer careers. More importantly even, she has an original and distinctive voice, generating poems which, at one level, may seem artless but which are actually the product of both craft and risk. Her poetry is candid without being confessional; quite often erotic but not spurious or self-dramatising.
Her new book is in five sections and the element of risk is apparent at the outset. The title poem of the first section, “Come in, lie down” details a rather speedy heterosexual encounter told by a lesbian narrator. She is “New to this / excoriating tenderness, passion / that leaves me stubble-scraped and scabbed”. She appreciates what “made me laugh out loud” and the man who “come(s) // so close to sating me with touch”. In the poem’s closing lines, however, the narrator decides “I miss that brine-shaped cleft, the way that sealskin / glides on sealskin. One day I must // go down to the seas again.”
Dearborn’s integration of humour and lyricism is unusual — and ideal for poems about sex. One is not likely to read Masefield’s “Sea Fever” again without Dearborn’s poem coming to mind as well.
As those closing lines from “Come in, lie down” demonstrate, Dearborn is also a highly metaphoric poet. In “The Changes”, just two poems along, she compares “Kissing Louise” to “the shock of the extra-early / morning alarm”, to the “sudden shrilling of a schoolroom bell, / calling me in / to a strange new lesson” and “a tardy dinner gong / summoning me to a meal / of scent and heat”. For some poets, this would be trying too hard but Dearborn cleverly resolves all these “bell/alarm” images in the poem’s last four lines, ending with the memory that “my old life shivered and fell from me // and lay like the sweat of the ringers in the tower.”
The Ringing World is not all carnality though. The second section, wittily titled “What to wear at five”, deals with childhood rather than cocktails and includes a memorable pregnancy poem, “Springborn”, written from the foetus’s point of view as she feels the months of gestation cycle through the seasons towards the time when she will “hear spring equinox whisper, Ready?”
In case the poems quoted already suggest a rush of lyricism only, it should be noted that other poems — such as “Chalk speaks to cheese” and “Gravity” — display ingenious (and often wryly humorous) conceits. In the first of these two poems chalk relishes the “protein fresh-wrought, swaddled // in that grease-emulsion” dimensions of cheese but as the latter enters “living bone” chalk realises it will eventually “rub (her) out”, “pound (her) out of the dusters”. “Sometimes,” says chalk, “as I / make my mark I shriek / in purest jealousy.”
A poem about dusting a blackboard (an ancient custom these days, I suspect) may seem trivial but Dearborn cleverly loads it with human application — a key to many relationships for a start. Such implications are also seen in other poems where tenderness, not just sexual attraction, is shown to be necessary to any long-term partnership. “Anniversary” is one such poem. It’s “six years exactly since the night / our bodies met” but the narrator is in “the streaming wilderness / of the flu” and her lover has an “early meeting” next morning. They “sleep apart” but the early-rising partner has “moved the purple-shaded // lamp into the hall, left its light / as a gift.” At 3 a.m. the flu-stricken narrator “limp(s) to the toilet / bathed in roses.”
Though there are further love poems (such as “Fuel” and “Sweeping”) in the last two sections of The Ringing World it’s a pair of longer, more plangent poems that leave the reader with a sense of completeness. The first is “The Quiet House” where the poet evokes the terrible grief of a heterosexual couple whose baby has died at birth. It’s in five short sections and ends with the narrator confiding: “I bend to lift her // from the cot. / Gently // I rock her, pat / the quilt-wrapped box.”
The book’s title poem, “The Ringing World”, is suitably located as its culmination. In five sections it examines and memorably evokes the poet’s experience with tinnitus, a common enough but deeply-frustrating condition brought on, in this case it seems, by having “the speakers / pummelling my heart” and letting “the headphones ... fill my body / to the brim with sound”. To those, like this reviewer, who share the affliction it’s a tellingly-accurate account of what, without respite, we are bound to take with us right through to the end. “The choir in my ear knows just one note / ... Should I take / comfort from this permanence // in a fleeting world? Be honoured / that they sing only for me?”
In all, The Ringing World, is a lively and lyrical collection, its often ironic humour tempered by an underlying seriousness that will, I suspect, (like tinnitus?) persist in the ear long after you have finished reading it.