Po­etic in­ti­ma­cies to be shared

Ge­of­frey Lehmann

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

WHY do peo­ple write po­etry? Un­like Damien Hirst, who auc­tions art­works fab­ri­cated in his work­shops for mil­lions of pounds, poets get lit­tle money from their po­etry. Nor is there much fame, and some­times it seems as though there are more poets than po­etry read­ers.

So why write po­ems? One rea­son may be the longevity of a good poem. Thou­sands of lines of an­cient Greek po­etry have sur­vived for more than two mil­len­nia. This com­pares with some rare frag­ments of their mu­sic ( less than 50 min­utes recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 1978), none of their paint­ings ( al­though they ranked this art form with their sculp­ture) and a few rem­nants of their best sculp­ture.

Po­etry is like bits of DNA. It codes it­self into our minds and trans­ports it­self down gen­er­a­tions, pop­ping out at odd mo­ments, such as the poem by W. H. Au­den read out in the film Four Wed­dings and a Fu­neral . But it is still wor­ry­ing. Where will the new good poets come from?

It’s there­fore a great re­lief to read Bron­wyn Lea’s The Other Way Out . Still a year or so short of 40, Lea may be the bright­est light to emerge in Aus­tralian po­etry since the start of this decade. Her po­etry is in­tense, per­sonal, in­tel­li­gent and witty. She is able to make her lines move briskly and eco­nom­i­cally and cre­ate sur­prises. In Born Again , which is surely a mod­ern clas­sic, she de­scribes a di­vorce from a man who sold his house by the beach and drove his Volk­swa­gen into the desert to die. He was gone a year. I was liv­ing one vertical mile above the desert floor — where he slept in his car. The vivid de­tail about liv­ing one vertical mile above the desert floor puz­zled me for a few days. Then I re­alised I’d been a bit stupid. The per­sona of the poem, pre­sum­ably Lea dur­ing her years in the US, had gone to live in a moun­tain re­gion such as Colorado, where she would be one vertical mile above the desert floor. The ex­hus­band doesn’t die as he’d planned. He be­comes a ‘‘ born again’’. ‘‘ In­stead of dy­ing, god spoke to him./ God for­gave all his tres­passes. But I/ didn’t for­give his tres­passes against me./ My heart has a long ledger.’’

The ex-hus­band comes to col­lect his daugh­ter from the mother’s snow­bound house, pre­sum­ably on parental ac­cess. The mother gath­ers her daugh­ter’s things. ‘‘ It took a lit­tle while. When/ I re­turned he was gone. Typ­i­cal.’’ She looks around and dis­cov­ers him pray­ing in the snow. In an ironic con­clu­sion, Lea re­calls: Snow col­lected on his up­turned palms. I felt its cold­ness. Such in­ti­macy we had never shared. Some­times grace Comes like that, it falls like snow. Chris Wal­lace-Crabbe, with a birth­day in 1934, is the pa­tri­arch of the poets in this re­view. He is chat­tier and gen­er­ally less in­tense than Lea in his lat­est col­lec­tion, Telling a Hawk from a Hand­saw , but still at the top of his form and able to

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