Among his open forms, the poet returns periodically to rhyming couplets and the quatrain. He is fond also of the rhetorical question to ponder large issues. Occasionally the latter might seem a gloss, but it reflects the vastness of the subject — time, existence, the universe — under review. It is put to good effect in The Troubled Weather of Humanity:
Elsewhere we can savour the inventive verbs and adjectives: ‘‘ bemeddled’’, ‘‘ slummock’’, ‘‘ skirling’’, ‘‘ hydra-headed’’.
Not all the new work compels. That the ‘‘ juicy young woman’’ in Epifania is reading Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome doesn’t save the poem from voyeurism. Sometimes, as in Surfaces, the insertion of the political into an otherwise unrelated topic or image seems to force statements of conscience. In both new and old poems, incorporation of the colloquial and slang — ‘‘ little blighters’’, ‘‘ old biddies’’, ‘‘ just the shot’’, ‘‘ crook umpy’’, ‘‘ bright as a button’’ — conveys the intended Aussie irreverence (as when God is the crook umpy) but can also have a mildly deflating effect on an otherwise strong poem.
Among highlights from this survey of new and old from one of Australia’s most generative poets are revisits to Melbourne, Wallace-Crabbe’s cutting, localised version of AD Hope’s Australia; And the World was Calm, in which our diminutive place is marvellously sketched in the ‘‘ lyrical mountains . . . We never read their huge minds, and we die’’; and the short, powerful post9/11 poem And Terror: . . . is dogma even worse than the raving beast of self, erecting our mere singleness into the horrors of principle and buying it a gun?
The metaphor of the title is the pursuit of a burden that can’t be located in memory. Yet the novel’s ‘‘ albatross’’ — the truth about what happened those years ago — constantly dips and loops away. Twitcher has a slow, flat pace, with few moments of lightness to contrast against the endless grey of suffering, loss, deception and danger. Saywell’s style is restrained, but the narration rather too deliberately retreats from telling the backstory; we get a flash or a glimmer before the horizon once again turns still. The all too fleeting presence of the object of the search might make readers tire of the pursuit.
When the revelations do come, however, they are affecting, with Kenno’s wish for a scar of his own ‘‘ so I could belong to what happened the way she does’’ constituting a further blow to the family. With her second novel, Saywell has written skilfully of the painful attempts to navigate morality, sexuality and family secrets in adolescence. Twitcher is an exploration of the hard knowledge that comes with steps into adulthood, where parents once admired are revealed as fallible and flawed. We were bound to applaud Two empty signifiers now: Security and terror.
Which is not to forget Autumn Lines for Michael Hoffman (‘‘I seem to be voting my way across my life’’) and the wonderfully acerbic Old Men During a Fall in Government — in an election year, just the shot.