Con­fes­sions and a del­i­cate sen­si­bil­ity

Lilies and Stars Con­fes­sional Box

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page Ge­off Page

By Rebecca Law Pi­caro Press, 64pp, $15 By Vanessa Page Wal­leah Press, 78pp, $18.50

WHETHER con­sciously or not, Rebecca Law’s Lilies and Stars seems to have a spe­cific tar­get au­di­ence. Though Law’s po­etry is con­tem­po­rary in form, it ap­pears to stem from, and aim at, a sort of pre-Raphaelite or late-Vic­to­rian sen­si­bil­ity where beauty is spelled with a cap­i­tal B and na­ture is dis­tilled into an early morn­ing or late evening mist­i­ness to be re­ceived on del­i­cate reti­nas.

An Aus­tralian prece­dent for this may be seen in some of Michael Drans­field’s work in the late 1960s and early 70s when he was un­der the im­press of Swin­burne.

An ex­cerpt from Law’s Ma­genta, which in some ways is a per­sua­sive poem, il­lus­trates the ten­dency. ‘‘ A canopy of rain clouds and loud chirp­ing. / All species hid­ing, six shel­ters, one long kiss. / Tur­tle­doves, but­tered bread and cheese. / In­door light­ing, ta­ble set­ting, sil­ver bells. / Misty vi­o­let night­fall, one, two, count­less stars.’’

There is a real lyri­cism here but dourer, more sec­u­lar tem­per­a­ments may prove re­sis­tant — es­pe­cially when there is an ex­cess of it.

Lilies and Stars does con­tain a few main­stream po­ems, how­ever, such as Gul­lets (about the poet’s closely ob­served re­sponse to a wounded mag­pie), but they are not nu­mer­ous. More typ­i­cal by far is a poem like Pas­toral, short enough to be re­pro­duced here in full: ‘‘ Char­coal artist / & syl­van field / (where crossed, quiet / Daphne): vi­o­lets / grow, scent­ing with / heady per­fumes / his cen­tury, / an im­pres­sion / like the dark­ness / of af­ter­noons / or dusk, early / night, ro­manc­ing.’’

This is a ges­tu­ral piece, re­joic­ing sin­cerely in the art of an ear­lier era. We’re not in any doubt about which cen­tury is re­ferred to. It’s ex­tremely un­usual th­ese days to see words like syl­van and ro­manc­ing used uniron­i­cally.

A slightly jar­ring el­e­ment of syn­tac­ti­cal moder­nity is in­tro­duced by the clause ‘‘ where crossed, quiet / Daphne’’ but this is not enough to off­set the im­pres­sion of a preRaphaelite pen­cil sketch be­ing lov­ingly re­pro­duced with­out comment. Then again, that dis­con­cert­ing phrase could sim­ply be a 19th-cen­tury in­ver­sion of ‘‘ where quiet Daphne crossed’’.

There is, nev­er­the­less, a group of gen­uine po­etry lovers to whom Lilies and Stars will ap­peal — and whose ex­pec­ta­tions of po­etry it will ful­fil. To them, the book can be un­re­servedly rec­om­mended.

Vanessa Page’s first col­lec­tion, Con­fes­sional Box, is dif­fer­ent from Law’s on sev­eral counts, par­tic­u­larly in its tone and in its use of en­tirely dif­fer­ent land­scapes — lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal. As the book’s ti­tle sug­gests, this is in­deed con­fes­sional po­etry but it owes lit­tle to the mod­ern founders of that mode, Robert Low­ell and Sylvia Plath. Most of the po­ems are set in Bris­bane or the dry hin­ter­lands of Queens­land and NSW. Th­ese cityscapes and land­scapes are not so much of in­ter­est in them­selves but more as re­in­force­ments for the po­ems’ emo­tions.

Like not a few po­ets be­fore her, Page is mainly con­cerned with love gone wrong, with a love that is no longer re­cip­ro­cated but which can­not be con­ve­niently filed away. It’s love savoured in ret­ro­spect.

The ex­act na­ture of the cen­tral re­la­tion­ship is not ex­plicit but ti­tles like Wife and lines from that same poem, such as ‘‘ your heart snaps like a snare drum’’, sug­gest some­thing of the nar­ra­tor’s dis­ad­van­ta­geous sit­u­a­tion.

In The Shirt, im­me­di­ately be­fore Wife, the speaker notes how her lover’s shirt, left be­hind in her cup­board, is ‘‘ still smelling like you and me on that week­day night / in Oc­to­ber’’ and how, if she sent it back, ‘‘ it would be too fi­nal. I still need your arms, even like this’’.

This steady the­matic fo­cus gives the book its unity but also risks over­state­ment and/or deja vu. For­tu­nately, the lat­ter is avoided through the va­ri­ety of Page’s im­agery and her con­sid­er­able mu­si­cal­ity — as for in­stance in her poem The Back Step, where the poet, asked by her lover to talk about love, sug­gests it is ‘‘ cit­rus and si­lence in the lan­guage of the skin / and the ef­fort­less way the dis­tances close in’’. In Ter­ri­tory, a wait­ing woman, not un­like the poet, sees her­self as a ‘‘ pas­tiche of some­one else’’, as a ‘‘ naked bulb burn­ing through the kitchen lou­vre slits’’ and, fi­nally, as a ‘‘ cas­sette tape rib­bon / fly­ing like a prayer flag from the bri­ga­low’’.

A po­ten­tial monotony is also avoided by the in­clu­sion of sev­eral po­ems about places that are not there only to sup­port the main theme (for ex­am­ple, Bris­bane City, 11am and Kurilpa ).

Po­ems about peo­ple other than the un­re­li­able lover (such as the ones about her son in A Son and Home­work) serve the same pur­pose. They broaden the col­lec­tion con­sid­er­ably and add a needed va­ri­ety.

Un­like a num­ber of her young(ish) fe­male con­tem­po­raries who are, with some jus­tice, dom­i­nat­ing Aus­tralian po­etry at the mo­ment, Page seems rel­a­tively un­in­flu­enced by academia. She may oc­ca­sion­ally use a word like heuris­tic but she is also ca­pa­ble (twice) of con­fus­ing the gram­mar of ‘‘ lay’’ and ‘‘ lie’’. One won­ders if the pub­lisher no­ticed and de­cided to let it ‘‘ go through to the keeper’’ or whether it was thought es­sen­tial to the poem’s ef­fect.

Ul­ti­mately, what mat­ters, how­ever, is the strength and sin­cer­ity of Page’s emo­tions — and the fact that the tech­niques used are more than ad­e­quate to con­vey them. There are not many of us who can re­main un­in­ter­ested in the contents of some­one else’s Con­fes­sional Box.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.