Sharply at­tuned to changes in the air

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ali Jane Smith Ali Jane Smith is a poet and critic.

The first time I read the po­ems in Martin Har­ri­son’s Hap­pi­ness, they seemed plain enough. Here is a poem about see­ing wal­la­bies at dusk. Here is a poem about long­ing for your lover. Here is a poem about a bird, and one about some bats. I read those po­ems again. They be­come waves, dis­persed into par­ti­cles. They can’t be held, can’t be con­tained. Th­ese po­ems co­here mo­men­tar­ily and then dis­perse: ten­der, erotic, thought­ful, sad, ec­static.

Hap­pi­ness is a post­hu­mous col­lec­tion. Har­ri­son was a vi­brant and in­flu­en­tial pres­ence in Aus­tralian poetry, and his loss has been deeply felt, his life and work ex­u­ber­antly cel­e­brated, since he died in Septem­ber 2014. Hap­pi­ness is the re­al­i­sa­tion of his abid­ing in­ter­est in hu­man com­mu­nion, in ecosys­tems, and in the role of lan­guage in thought and bod­ily ex­pe­ri­ence, syn­the­sised in con­ver­sa­tional, though not un­com­pli­cated, lan­guage.

Har­ri­son has come to be as­so­ci­ated with a move­ment known as ecopo­etry, though in the au­thor’s note to his pre­vi­ous book, Wild Bees: New and Se­lected Po­ems, he de­scribed him­self as hav­ing “es­caped from be­ing clas­si­fied in a move­ment or a gen­er­a­tion — new or old, in­no­va­tive or for­mal”. At the same time, he re­garded him­self as be­ing “for­tu­nate to have seen some of my poetry dis­cov­ered by a num­ber of eco­log­i­cally con­scious read­ers and crit­ics who are con­cerned with how we live our lives en­vi­ron­men­tally, in­clud­ing at the most in­tri­cate and mi­cro-per­cep­tual lev­els of aware­ness”.

This is char­ac­ter­is­tic sen­si­tiv­ity and ac­cu­racy, the kind of care­ful and nu­anced thought that made Har­ri­son so suc­cess­ful in his ef­fort to de­scribe the in­tri­ca­cies of the places he in­hab­ited and to record mi­cro-per­cep­tions of his own pres­ence in those places.

The poem White Tailed Deer be­gins with a sound, a “small thump”. The lis­tener in the poem makes a se­ries of guesses as to where the sound has come from: “a squawky wat­tlebird land­ing … the el­bow’s jerk with which the car boot slams”. The cat­a­logue of pos­si­bil­i­ties is in­ter­spersed with dis­cus­sion about the per­cep­tion of ev­ery­day events.

Then the list is brought to an abrupt halt with the line: “Really, you’ve no idea what’s go­ing on. You hardly grab a thing.” The word ‘‘grab’’, where the reader might have ex­pected the pret­tier ‘‘grasp’’, is just right. Grab is suit­ably mun­dane, hur­ried, edg­ing into des­per­a­tion. The poem then moves abruptly, as thoughts can, to a din­ner party in up­state New York and the brief sight­ing of the white tailed deer. It is an in­stance of the ap­pre­hen­sion of a mo­ment, one of those grabs you hardly ever get.

Har­ri­son scat­ters his work with flashes, bursts and sprays of white. They are the high­lights of the “glim­mer­ing” that he de­scribes, the play of light and dark, dap­pling, mo­tion; in wa­ter, leaves, a flock of birds, wildlife. The poem Wal­la­bies is pep­pered with spots and streaks of white. Doubt­less Har­ri­son’s de­scrip­tion is vis­ually ac­cu­rate but I also read th­ese tree limbs, cock­a­toos and flow­ers as im­ages of his own phys­i­cal and per­cep­tual in­hab­it­ing or be­ing in the land­scape, his own limbs and skin and flights of thought present to him as he looks.

He doesn’t pre­tend it’s Eden. He de­scribes birds and plants, cliffs and rivers, but in­cluded in his an­no­ta­tion of the land is the “nec­es­sary dam­age / of banks and flooded logs, dried up pools, Toy­ota paths”. Fi­nally the wal­la­bies them­selves come into fo­cus, an­i­mals whose par­tic­u­lar sen­sory per­cep­tion means they can “know ev­ery­thing for a scat­tered in­stant”, quickly star­tle and move on. Har­ri­son re­turns to his own ex­pe­ri­ence, the star­tled wal­la­bies re­call­ing him to the si­mul­ta­ne­ous fa­mil­iar­ity and strange­ness of wak­ing sud­denly be­side a lover.

Har­ri­son shows us the self do­ing per­cep­tion, do­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, al­ways me­di­ated by mem­ory, thought, im­ages re­called. It can’t be an accident that so many of the po­ems, and so many lines within longer po­ems, are con­cerned with chang­ing weather and changes in the day. Rain ar­riv­ing, or af­ter rain, first light or dusk, mo­ments where the senses are hard at work tak­ing in al­tered air pres­sure, tem­per­a­ture, smells, sounds and sights. When the quick­fire busi­ness of in­ter­pre­ta­tion and ori­en­ta­tion that we do all the time un­con­sciously, be­comes con­scious.

Th­ese po­ems never strain to im­press the reader with a novel or ar­rest­ing im­age for its own sake. I would guess that Har­ri­son’s pri­mary con­cern was not to sim­ply craft a good poem — he might have been try­ing to forget about, or go be­yond, the skill he brought to his writ­ing — as it was about ex­per­i­ment. Not that the work reads as ‘‘ex­per­i­men­tal’’ poetry, but the whole project is a kind of ex­per­i­ment, to see how far lan­guage can go to­wards set­ting down one’s pres­ence in the world, how close say­ing gets to do­ing.

It is in the po­ems about ab­sence, long­ing, and loss that this ex­per­i­ment with lan­guage be­comes as tightly drawn and res­o­nant as a drum skin. Har­ri­son worked to­wards clar­ity, to­wards an ac­cu­rate, in­formed and uniquely sub­jec­tive no­ta­tion of be­ing in the world.

About Bats opens with a de­scrip­tion of mi­cro-bats ar­riv­ing in­side a house through an ex­trac­tor fan. Har­ri­son de­scribes the bat, and then goes on to make us see the bats in their fragility, ex­ist­ing for their mo­ment in time. He plays with pos­si­bil­i­ties for the words used to name bats in English and French, talks about how bats nav­i­gate: not a tech­ni­cal de­scrip­tion but an ac­count of what it might be like to be a bat, of “flight’s veer and dart … ob­jects be­ing sensed in their rich­ness along ev­ery fi­bre”.

Then he mo­men­tar­ily takes the bats and has them swoop into meta­physics, be­fore re­turn­ing to their mi­cro-scale, fly­ing around his kitchen. The bats in this poem re­mind me of Martin Har­ri­son. Their un­con­ven­tional beauty, the com­plete­ness and in­ten­sity of their ex­pe­ri­ence, the way they sub­tly change the at­mos­phere.

Martin Har­ri­son was a vi­brant and in­flu­en­tial pres­ence in Aus­tralian poetry

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