Confessions and a delicate sensibility
Lilies and Stars Confessional Box
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.