Waves of con­ti­nu­ity and change

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon West

In the new an­thol­ogy Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Po­etry, pub­lished by Puncher & Wattmann, the ed­i­tors make strong ar­gu­ments for the cul­tural im­por­tance of po­etry to­day. They cel­e­brate how, for ex­am­ple, our poets con­tinue to help us un­der­stand the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment not as a back­ground for lit­er­a­ture but as a com­plex pres­ence in our lives.

They also note the vi­tal and var­ied ways in which po­etry explores lan­guage, which con­sti­tutes so much of our sense of self, and yet at times ap­pears in­tan­gi­ble and strange. Now four new books by Aus­tralian poets doc­u­ment in di­verse fash­ion the strug­gles we face to de­fine our­selves as in­di­vid­u­als and mem­bers of a com­mu­nity. They tes­tify to how, in grap­pling with such ques­tions, an art form too often over­looked con­tin­ues to show us the way.

The ti­tle of Brook Emery’s fifth book of po­etry, Have Been and Are (Glo­ria SMH Press, 70pp, $29.99), is taken from the last sen­tence of Charles Dar­win’s The Ori­gin of Species, ‘‘end­less forms most beau­ti­ful and won­der­ful have been and are be­ing evolved’’. This is a fit­ting key to po­ems that are mus­ings on the sheer va­ri­ety of life. Emery has taken the ad­jec­tives with which Dar­win con­cludes his book, beau­ti­ful and won­der­ful — which are them­selves so un­sci­en­tific — as a start­ing point for the poet’s eter­nal urge to cel­e­brate the world in song.

‘‘Have been and are’’ sug­gests not only the var­ie­gated na­ture of life, but also flux. It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that the ocean, with its tides and cur­rents, is once again cen­tral for a poet who con­fesses, ‘‘I’m al­ways writ­ing about the sea, about change / about power, how small we are, I am; about / be­ing tossed around, lost maybe’’. If the river into which we can­not step twice was a sym­bol of change for Her­a­cli­tus, in Emery it is a vaster body of wa­ter and, rather than step­ping, the poet is surf­ing across the sur­feits of na­ture, or get­ting his breath knocked out of him by the tidal waves of cli­mate change.

Just as the book takes its ti­tle from Dar­win, so too the ti­tle of each poem is a phrase sam­pled from au­thors rang­ing from Baude­laire and Leonard Co­hen to Hei­deg­ger and Inga Clendin­nen. While this sug­gests the same di­ver­sity in the world of let­ters as in the nat­u­ral world, it would be wrong to adopt Dar­win’s model of evo­lu­tion, or the En­light­en­ment’s idea of progress, to lit­er­a­ture. Think rather of that process WH Au­den called break­ing bread with the past. On Par­nas­sus there is no progress.

In some writ­ers, epigraphs cap­ping po­ems can seem like an anx­ious de­sire to rivet one­self to the tra­di­tion. In Emery the poet’s own voice is res­o­lute and clear. The po­ems are tran­scrip­tions of an in­ner mono­logue as it re­flects on the world. It is a quiet and philo­soph­i­cal voice, mov­ing cau­tiously, dis­trust­ful of pro­nounce­ments. ‘‘This is think­ing side­ways,’’ one poem an­nounces, ‘‘or lying in wait so when a thought comes at you / out of left field, so to speak, all you have to do / is pounce.’’

The po­ems are open-ended, not try­ing to study thought un­der a mi­cro­scope but aiming to ‘‘catch my own drift’’. Of course drift must be free to trans­form, like a cur­rent of wa­ter, some­times dan­ger­ously and mys­te­ri­ously like an un­der­tow. ‘‘ We han­ker af­ter know­ing / and are given change,’’ he writes. But in the end, praise for the phys­i­cal world pre­vails: ‘‘Let’s not lament, / lest my words be­lit­tle the dap­pled light”.

The sea is also a re­cur­rent theme in Michelle Cahill’s se­cond book of po­etry, The Her­ring Lass (Arc Pub­li­ca­tions, 77pp, $20). It con­tains po­ems de­pict­ing those who earn a liv­ing by the ocean, such as the ti­tle char­ac­ter, and oth­ers that adopt the voice of the sea’s in­hab­i­tants, such as a seal: ‘‘I sniff the kelp and blood­worms, / mould into an eroded kerb / with a twist of neck, whisk­ing as if / hid­ing my fur is nat­u­ral / in­stinct for milk or man’’.

The sea can also be a bound­ary for na­tions, or the point from which colo­nial coun­tries set out on voy­ages of con­quest, and Cahill is well at­tuned to the way ‘‘there was no caesura, no straight lines / at the edge of Em­pire. The wall was por­ous.’’ Por­ous, too, is the lan­guage of these pieces, which are awash in the plu­ral­ism of English words, con­tem­po­rary dis­courses, reg­is­ters and con­texts dizzy­ingly spliced to­gether, such as ‘‘pelagic fish skirr’’, and ‘‘The ele­giac red gums re­store calm and un­wit­ting / sense to margina­lia, trash­ing the mind’s megabytes’’.

Seas con­nect con­ti­nents and these po­ems range from Scot­land to Aus­tralia, Asia to the Arc­tic Cir­cle. The au­thor’s note tells us that Cahill was born in Kenya, lived in Bri­atin and now re­sides in Syd­ney. But is there also something typ­i­cally Aus­tralian about this roam­ing per­spec­tive? Many of our poets are doggedly in­ter­na­tional in scope, as if there were some un­der­ly­ing scep­ti­cism about the ground­ed­ness of “home’’ that keeps us on the move.

The ed­i­tors of the afore­men­tioned an­thol­ogy de­scribe Aus­tralia as a nat­u­ral post­mod­ern coun­try, as a re­sult of its cul­tural and ge­o­graphic cir­cum­stances. Cahill, I imag­ine, would agree: ‘‘Ev­ery voy­age is a dou­ble voice, blur­ring / body and codex, buoyed by stars, cloud / vac­il­la­tions, era­sures of trade winds, ev­ery / har­bour, a sen­tence. My­self, a for­eigner’’.

Af­ter a long gap, Stephen McIn­er­ney has pub­lished his se­cond book of po­etry, The Wind Out­side (Hardie Grant Pub­lish­ing, 104pp, $24.99). These pieces also range to Bri­tain, France and Greece, but their dual fo­cus and strength is Syd­ney and the NSW south coast, where the au­thor grew up.

Rather than flux, the best of them aim to cap­ture and cel­e­brate ev­ery­day de­tails of life, with a keen eye and met­ri­cal flair, ‘‘You left me on the day the milk ex­pired / I left it in the fridge for days for­get­ting / I pour it in my tea and watch it cur­dle / it is an aw­ful thing to be de­sired.’’ They are coura­geous in try­ing to be grounded, to speak lu­cidly and faith­fully in an age that has aban­doned the sig­na­ture ‘‘yours sin­cerely’’.

McIn­er­ney is often en­ticed by things just out of reach or glimpsed mo­men­tar­ily, like breasts in a loose top, ‘‘the sway, / the dan­dle of la­dles / at play’’; or like the wind, which sweeps through so many of these po­ems: ‘‘I had not thought be­fore of the wind’s long­ing, / how it al­ways seems in search of something lost, / like a cloud set down on a green hill at evening / or a let­ter rustling in a young woman’s hand’’. Else­where he writes, ‘‘the wind is the spirit hov­er­ing / over the waters, / ab­sorbed in / its own re­flec­tion’’.

The se­cond half of the book is fo­cused on evok­ing the past. A ru­ral child­hood and the tri­als of board­ing school re­call Philip Hod­gins, as here in My First Cricket Bat: ‘‘I re­mem­ber my first cricket bat: / lin­seed oil rubbed down the blade / with an old sin­glet; / the crack of the mal­let / along face and edges; / a dream of Ben­son and Hedges’’. He also shows a knack for apho­rism, as in one of my favourites, A Sum­mary: ‘‘Cof­fee makes the sun rise, / whiskey makes it set, / and in be­tween, de­sire, / and in be­tween, re­gret.’’

Me­te­orites (Whit­more Press, 48pp, $19.95) is the first col­lec­tion from Carmen Leigh Keates, who won the Whit­more Press Manuscript Prize, which led to this pub­li­ca­tion. From the open­ing Lass of the first poem we are again roam­ing, either in search of something or to es­cape from something hard at home, ‘‘The light­ning is con­cerned with a se­cret / af­fair far off in the un­lit Baltic. / Only the rain comes home’’.

A bi­o­graph­i­cal note de­scribes how Carmen Leigh Keates goes either very far north (Scan­di­navia) or very far south (Tas­ma­nia) when re­search­ing new work, but there are other types of travel here, too. Most promi­nently there are voy­ages via the cin­ema of An­drei Tarkovsky and Ing­mar Bergman to the worlds of dream and screen. Often the ex­pe­ri­ences of the ge­o­graph­i­cal trav­eller and the cin­e­matic one merge to cre­ate a dream­scape that is mys­te­ri­ous and sug­ges­tive, for as Leigh Keates says, ‘‘There are many rooms, frames. We make them / move by pass­ing through and re­mem­ber­ing our own se­quences’’.

These are po­ems that take ekphra­sis (po­etry that re­sponds to a vis­ual art­work) to the realm of cin­ema, com­bin­ing el­e­ments of nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ter with the eerie at­mos­phere of Tarkovsky’s films, such as An­drei Rublev. As An­drei car­ries out ‘‘this faith paint­ing’’, the poem de­scribes how ‘‘he feels im­pelled to the cross­roads / of yel­low flow­ers buzzing / so full of bees that if this scene were shaken / up­side down it would not be pollen / that trick­les out but legs and wings’’.

Such sur­real jour­neys are an­chored by other po­ems that are trips into fam­ily rec­ol­lec­tion. Here a more earthed and nostal­gic note dom­i­nates, as for ex­am­ple in the long poem Burn­ing Train: ‘‘Mum and Dad would sip / from glasses of port / that looked like the blood / sap from those trees / down near the lines be­yond / the field, where with sticks / we’d draw pictures in the river sand / while the match played out’’. Draw­ing pictures in the river sand, and re­com­pos­ing the se­quence of frames we view and pass through are both good images for the in­tel­li­gent and sug­ges­tive po­ems of Me­te­orites. is a poet and critic.

De­tail from the cover of The Her­ring by Michelle Cahill, left

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