Ali Jane Smith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

One of Aus­tralia’s most ad­mired po­ets, Ju­dith Bev­eridge, and a geri­a­tri­cian who is also a poet, Su­san Ogle, have edited this col­lec­tion of Aus­tralian po­ems. Fall­ing and Fly­ing: Po­ems on Age­ing looks squarely at some of the scary aspects of age­ing — not just death but de­men­tia, in­con­ti­nence, be­reave­ment, de­pen­dence. Bev­eridge and Ogle do not quite of­fer po­etry as a panacea, but ex­press the hope that the po­ems they have col­lected will in some way act as a re­source for read­ers liv­ing through or con­tem­plat­ing such losses.

A pair of po­ems by Dorothy Hewett of­fer a neat ex­am­ple of our mixed feel­ings about age­ing. The first, Old Women in the Moun­tains, is a poem of ob­ser­va­tion, de­scrib­ing “old women com­ing trem­bling out of the buses / cling­ing to each other / in their sup­port hose”. It is vivid and com­i­cal, and the poet’s at­ti­tude to­wards the women is af­fec­tion­ate.

This be­ing Hewett, the poem con­tains am­bi­gu­ity, the prospect of dis­ap­pear­ing into “the blue haze of for­est or cliff edge”, a dis­ap­pear­ance that might be doom, or es­cape. By con­trast, her poem What Will Hap­pen ... is a first-per­son ac­count of the fear of phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. Old age here is not amus­ing; it’s rich with fear of an imag­ined mo­ment “when I lie in my bed / un­able to move at day­break / long­ing for the great strong pull / of the boughs / the shak­ing sound / of the wind”. Old age is made pun­gent with im­ages of thrilling sen­sa­tion and the hope that there will be some­one to “en­ter my soli­tude / and lift me up / in his arms re­joic­ing”. Ac­counts of Hewett’s later life sug­gest that her hope for arms re­joic­ing was ful­filled and, far from dis­ap­pear­ing, she died a loved and cel­e­brated woman who left us a vi­tal cul­tural legacy.

Some of the most mov­ing po­ems in the book are about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween adult chil­dren and their el­derly par­ents. Robert Gray’s In De­part­ing Light is an ac­count of a visit to a mother in her 90s.

The pat­tern of the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween mother and son con­tin­ues, but cog­ni­tive de­cay means that the woman’s speech no longer makes sense. The son en­gages in me­an­der­ing re­flec­tions on his mother, her fragility, the ter­rific strange­ness of her self and sit­u­a­tion, but it is the old woman who steals the show with her sparkling non­sense, “The lit­tle boy in the star is food” and “The desert is a tongue … you know — it’s a — it’s a long / mo­tor car”. The func­tion­ing, philosophis­ing mind of the son can­not com­pete with the mem­o­rable im­ages pro­duced by his mother.

Leah Kamin­sky’s poem Acland Street ap­pre­ci­ates the de­tails, the beloved shapes and gait a child recog­nises in their par­ents, the re­peated phrases and ha­bit­ual acts that can be read ei­ther as dull­ness or as the hon­ing of ex­pe­ri­ence.

The par­ents in this poem nav­i­gate the ob­sta­cles found in both their ex­ter­nal and their in­ter­nal worlds, the dou­ble maze that can be­come more in­tense with age.

Michael Sharkey scrapes off the bar­na­cles with his wit, though we may lose some skin as well. On a first read­ing, his poem Lucky for Some (What the Sooth­sayer Said) sounds like a bit­ter curse. Read more care­fully, it’s a de­scrip­tion of the hu­man con­di­tion.

Ev­ery cou­plet in this poem is funny and mem­o­rable, and will sting more or less de­pend­ing on where your ten­der places are: “You’ll work for those who make the task of wak­ing up / a night­mare each day. / You’ll find ex­cuses when the wid­ows and the wid­ow­ers / of those you call your friends in­vite you in. They’ll hate you more.”

Sharkey’s take on the in­evitable pains of life is so sharply writ­ten, so pre­cise and en­ter­tain­ing, that it acts as a much needed restora­tive to what the edi­tors de­scribe as the “ele­giac” tone of this col­lec­tion.

The stand­out po­ems in Fall­ing and Fly­ing come from po­ets who write in nu­anced and thought­ful ways about ex­pe­ri­ence in all its de­tail and con­tra­dic­tion.

Ge­of­frey Lehmann’s Self-Por­trait at 62 is a happy poem. It opens with what will be­come the poem’s re­frain, “Aged 62, I like what I do”, and goes on to de­scribe an un­re­mark­able day, a de­scrip­tion that en­com­passes the poet’s part­ner, his chil­dren, his job (as a tax coun­sel), what he Fall­ing and Fly­ing: Po­ems on Age­ing Edited by Ju­dith Bev­eridge and Su­san Ogle, il­lus­trated by Richard Wu Brandl & Sch­lesinger, 300pp, $29.95


Some of the po­ems in Fall­ing and Fly­ing face up to the scarier aspects of age­ing

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