Timeless, jazzy optimism
by Stephen Lawrence
The possibilities of human
movement sends my mind on a flight
into the wordless;
my mind’s winged motion upward
and soaring – ‘Ode to a Gymnast’
Bronwyn Lea’s poems live in motion. Flight is travel, and it is also escape. (‘I have no body, only belongings.’) Restlessness pervades this first collection, and it gives her the freedom to range far and wide.
Equally intelligent but lesser poets might have allowed themselves to soar into ethereal self-obsession, and Lea does look inward but is aware of merely ‘celebrating only myself — my chic / design, my sheen, my sheet metal surface, / my fact of being’ (‘Woman Holding a Vase’). Riding above such pitfalls, Lea’s ascension produces a perspective from which to gain insight. She shuns barren hedonism with her ‘timeless, jazzy optimism’ — reminding us that the medium of poetry is like ‘advertising, music videos, jazz’ (Pam Brown, Antipodes, December 2001, p.101). For example: ‘Before leaving the world of flesh forever,’ she exhorts, putting her spin on the Rubáiyát, ‘we should spend to the limits of our pleasure.’ This is Omar with ginger and a little sass mixed in.
Lea’s buoyancy also allows her to energetically engage with the often-troubled complexities of relationships, in a more sophisticated way than many other contemporary poets dealing with this theme. She acknowledges gender differences and wrangles:
Desire or craving, he says,
(he means to say thirst)
is the cause of all suffering.
(He is the one who will
not remember me more…)
(‘Found Wanting at Zen Mountain Monastery’)
Sites of conflict and standoff are the places in which unity is most likely found, and knowing this permits Lea to see the similarities that can lead to hope. The emotional endpoint for participants is the same: the poet wants to ‘make him / reel until his heart beats so fast he finds it’ (‘Handing Back Time’).
Her splendid ‘Catalogue of People’ tries to unite, or at least to tease apart, some other human contradictions — bringing to mind John Tranter’s ‘there are two sorts of people: those who say / …`There are two sorts of people,’ / and those who don’t.’ Lea accomplishes this using generous sympathy, as well as dispassionate openness to other points of view (‘There are those who write literature of praise and those who write literature of blame. Both reveal an impulse towards life.’) One or both positions may be self-defeating, and she is not afraid to take sides (‘There are those who speculate about two types of people and those who speculate about continuums. The latter are caged in a paradox.’) She ends by facing herself to make the disarming commitment, in a kind of homely annunciation: ‘I like pigeons’.
At times, the writing can become a little over-cooked — particularly when her rhetorical assurance ceases to be grounded in emotion. Parts of ‘Handing Back Time’ (‘memory is the broken bridge / to his childhood’s field where he ran barefoot’) and ‘Driving Into Distance’ (‘mapping / myself onto its labyrinth of yellow’), to my ear, sound off-key or overheated in their context. Also, her sharp observation can become overwhelmed with abstractions that read like sophomoric speculation. It is hard to feel parts of ‘Contemplating Chaos at Burleigh Heads’:
because her body constantly erodes and renews
it would be an infinity that constantly
I discovered a child that exists
between a possibility of several children.
Meditation can read as idle sophistry when theory and passion don’t connect. This is a rare flaw, however, and not a single poem completely loses its footing.
As well as exploring geographical spaces — Texas, Peru, Japan, Long Island — Lea’s trajectories take her through time. ‘Original Sin’ seeks to reassemble the past in the present, and yearns for a pre-Fall state:
I want to turn back
farther than hours —
back to dreams where
my scales are slight
as dragonfly wings and not
an armadillo’s armour.
Lea’s wisdom allows her to perceive that there is no complete answer. There can only be brief moments of release, of untrammelled flight — and she ultimately becomes reconciled with her time — and earthbound physical being, ‘heedless of the requisite fall’ (‘Orthograde’).
This is one of the finest first collections that I have read for years; Bronwyn Lea’s excellent book is unified, astute and original.
Stephen Lawrence reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in JAS Review of Books Issue 10, Nov 2002.