Sharply attuned to changes in the air
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