Past and present collide as poets mark elusive time
By Sarah Day Puncher & Wattmann, 74pp, $25
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”.
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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