Ali Jane Smith
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
SUSAN HAMPTON SHOWS THAT SOMETIMES WISDOM IS ABOUT QUESTIONS, NOT ANSWERS
Some of the poems in Falling and Flying face up to the scarier aspects of ageing