Past and present col­lide as poets mark elu­sive time

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off Page

Tempo

By Sarah Day Puncher & Wattmann, 74pp, $25

Sig­nal Flare

By Anthony Lawrence Puncher & Wattmann, 100pp, $25

The Book of Ethel

By Jordie Al­bis­ton Puncher & Wattmann, 68pp, $24 SARAH Day’s sev­enth collection, Tempo, re­minds us what a quiet but dis­tinc­tive pres­ence she has be­come in Aus­tralian po­etry since her first book, A Hunger to be Less Se­ri­ous, in 1987. Her verse is thought­ful, ob­ser­vant (of na­ture and hu­man­ity) and un­der­stated.

Tempo has so much the­matic unity one could al­most con­sider it a livre com­pose. Ev­ery poem, in one way or an­other, is about time — even if (for­tu­nately) their tem­pos vary some­what. Clev­erly ar­ranged to re­flect a de­vel­op­ing thought process, the book quotes St Au­gus­tine and Stephen Hawk­ing in the epigraphs that set its pa­ram­e­ters. Au­gus­tine makes the point about a “present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things fu­ture”, while Hawk­ing de­clares “what we call real time is just a fig­ment of our imag­i­na­tions”.

Cer­tainly Day, in poem af­ter poem, cap­tures time’s elu­sive­ness as a con­cept. The early po­ems ad­dress the sub­ject fairly ex­plic­itly, as shown best per­haps in the clos­ing lines of Mower: “The blade against the grass is present time, / frogs and rab­bits leap­ing from the wheel, / tall grass wilt­ing as it falls away / all slip­shod into windrows, / the ar­row of a hawk’s de­scent / shadow of the mo­ment’s mea­sure­ment.”

How­ever, as po­ems such as Seed Vault of Longyearbyen and Glover in Par­adise demon­strate, Day is also in­ter­ested in time’s po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions, the change in view­point that can be wrought by its “pass­ing”. She mov­ingly evokes how the Tas­ma­nia that was once an ar­ca­dia to pain­ter Wil­liam Glover be­came in his later life a land­scape where “Ev­ery place he looked on now be­came / a scene of loss and scene of shame”.

For­tu­nately, in her mea­sured tone, Day also in­cludes a low-key el­e­ment of hu­mour — as, for in­stance, at the end of The Ner­vous World, a poem cel­e­brat­ing coun­try shows, where the poet notes “the sheep­dogs mar­shalling / non­plussed ducks: one, two, three, through a drain­pipe”.

This move away from what might other­wise have been an ex­ces­sive philo­soph­i­cal se­ri­ous­ness is also demon­strated in sev­eral au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal po­ems, most no­tably Out­siders and Alzheimer Ward. These are po­ems still em­body­ing the poet’s ideas about time but are more per­sonal and strongly felt than some of the more “the­o­ret­i­cal” ones.

Anthony Lawrence is a very dif­fer­ent poet from Day in al­most ev­ery way. Along with Robert Adam­son, Lawrence, since his first book Dream­ing in Stone (1989), has been in the van­guard of what might be called Aus­tralia’s con­tem­po­rary ro­man­tic tra­di­tion. Though rooted in gritty enough re­al­i­ties, Lawrence’s po­ems typ­i­cally have meta­phys­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions, are large in ges­ture and strong on nar­ra­tive — sto­ries that seem au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal (though are of­ten only partly so).

On the back cover of Sig­nal Flare, the pub­lish­ers ar­gue Lawrence’s 14th collection con­tains his “finest work to date”. Cer­tainly, as a collection it is not in­fe­rior to any that have pre­ceded it. It has the nor­mal quota of out­stand­ing po­ems — and in many ways, the­mat­i­cally and stylis­ti­cally speak­ing, it is vin­tage Lawrence.

The first of the book’s clev­erly ar­ranged four sec­tions is con­cerned with love or, more ac­cu­rately, love that didn’t go the dis­tance. Phrases such as these from Noc­turne set the tone: “all we have learned / from the hard-won nar­ra­tives / of loss and soli­tude / has been re­duced / to flash­backs and voiceovers”. Other lines, such as these from Rip­ple, con­tinue it: “we are fierce in our as­sess­ments / of the way love comes apart /and we at­tend to rea­son, reck­less­ness / or re­pair, un­til we meet some­one else”.

Ge­off Page is a poet and critic.

It is hard to quote Lawrence fairly, how­ever, since through the years he has be­come an ex­pert on the ex­tended sen­tence, a few of which can run for sev­eral pages. In a poem such as Ap­pel­la­tions, he uses this de­vice very ef­fec­tively to cre­ate, via syn­tac­ti­cally con­nected in­cre­ments, a stun­ning con­clu­sion.

A sense of nar­ra­tive, though not nec­es­sar­ily in long sen­tences, is also the main ap­peal in po­ems as se­ri­ous as Eclipse or as hu­mor­ous as Lepi­doptera and Some­thing in the Air, the lat­ter two adding con­vinc­ingly to Aus­tralia’s con­sid­er­able trea­sury of “tall tales”.

Con­versely, how­ever, many of the most mem­o­rable po­ems in Sig­nal Flare are quite short — ei­ther as part of a se­quence ( Sig­na­tures and Do­mes­tic Emer­gen­cies) or free-stand­ing ones such as the blackly hu­mor­ous The Pel­i­can, or Quail, the brief, poignant mem­ory a girl has while “Wait­ing for her methadone”. All of these serve to re­mind us that the term ro­man­tic for Lawrence, while true, can also be an over-sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

Though Jordie Al­bis­ton is roughly the same gen­er­a­tion as Lawrence and Day, her po­etry has fol­lowed a slightly dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory. Al­bis­ton is best known for her book-length po­etic nar­ra­tives or se­quences, such as The Hang­ing of Jean Lee (re­cently pro­duced on stage and for na­tional ra­dio) and The Son­net Ac­cord­ing to “M” (where ev­ery poem de­rives in some way from the let­ter or sound “m”).

As far back as Botany Bay Doc­u­ment (1996) Al­bis­ton has shown her­self to be a con­sid­er­able and dis­tinc­tive for­mal­ist, of­ten rhyming po­ems down the cen­tre of lines rather than at their end — thus giv­ing a be­guil­ing mix of the tra­di­tional and the con­tem­po­rary.

In The Book of Ethel, she again sets her­self some strict pa­ram­e­ters. Ev­ery one of the po­ems here is nar­rated by the poet’s ma­ter­nal great­grand­mother, Ethel Ov­erend nee Trahair — born in Corn­wall in 1872 and died in Mel­bourne 1949. The po­ems re­flect their nar­ra­tor’s Cor­nish ori­gins as well as so­cial and eco­nomic re­stric­tions she was forced (not un­hap­pily) to en­dure as a Methodist min­is­ter’s wife. Most of the po­ems are less than a half page and em­ploy ir­reg­u­lar rhymes and a rel­a­tively iambic rhythm.

In­trigu­ingly, how­ever, they are not the po­ems the woman her­self would have writ­ten. Their punc­tu­a­tion, con­sist­ing mainly of low­er­case sen­tence be­gin­nings and “breath spa­ces” in­stead of com­mas or full stops, was hardly typ­i­cal of Aus­tralian verse in the pe­riod. Not even the roughly con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Ern Mal­ley would have risked such de­vices.

All the po­ems are es­sen­tially in­te­rior mono­logues. They deal with things the nar­ra­tor, though an oc­ca­sional writer her­self, would hardly have al­lowed her­self to com­mit to print. In some ways, they are not un­like the po­ems of Emily Dickinson with their for­mal­ity and their sense of a life lived in a re­stricted con­text.

The poem YouCol­lared but not by me is short enough to serve as an il­lus­tra­tion. “YouCol­lared but not by me / aloney­our heart shared­above / be­lowon Earth as it be / in Heav­en­dear one­don’t choose! / Mis­terRev­erend­con­cur / you are tworevered­beloved / Hus­band-Hus­bandwed­dedTwice.”

Ethel’s love and rev­er­ence for her min­is­ter­hus­band is a con­stant through­out. Un­sur­pris­ingly per­haps, the po­ems them­selves don’t wres­tle with the meta­phys­i­cal. They are more con­cerned with do­mes­tic events, oc­ca­sional re­lo­ca­tions, in­fre­quent fam­ily jour­neys (to Can­berra in 1930, for in­stance).

To­gether, how­ever, they present, in a mere 66 pages, a life lived with hu­mil­ity and in­tegrity in a pe­riod whose at­ti­tudes and val­ues are fast re­ced­ing from us.

April 26-27, 2014

From top, Sarah Day, Anthony Lawrence and Jordie Al­bis­ton

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