The luxurious image
In the notes to Flight Animals, Bronwyn Lea informs her readers that the term is used to indicate not only those animals that can fly, but also those animals that, when confronted with danger, flee. In this, her debut collection of poetry, Lea uses the term ‘flight animals’ (in both its senses) as a controlling metaphor with great success. In language that is rich and sensuous, Lea explores the complexities of attachment and detachment, desire and distance, movement and stasis. Her voice ranges from reverent to wry as each poem in turn contemplates the nature of human nature, whether we are, after all, flight animals ourselves.
Movement and intimacy are the two predominant themes of Flight Animals. At their points of intersection, Lea finds the fight-or-flight moment that most defines the character of Lea’s speaker. She characterizes herself as ‘restless’ and as someone ‘who won’t be pinned’ (‘California Morning’). Elsewhere, she considers her place as a woman ‘schooled/in ricochet’ who comes to understand ‘It is the movement more than the man/that I love’ (‘Antipodes’). Thus, while the collection begins with a group of poems entitled ‘Homecomings,’ taken individually the poems resist any such feelings of easeful return. Often writing from the perspective of an Australian in America, Lea speaks with an exile’s rootlessness. Unlike other contemporary poets, such as Eavan Boland or LiYoung Lee, both of whom share something of her exile’s sensibility, Lea creates poems whose speakers seem to be enduring self-imposed exiles.
As a first book, Flight Animals seems to be documented evidence of its author’s promise. The collection is a sampler of sorts, offering examples of all the poet can do. Lea presents traditional free verse poems side by side with poems in haiku and rubaiyat forms. She offers readers elegies, odes, translations, and ekphrastic poetry. Taken in total, the book has a predominantly lyric sensibility, but the individual poems are just as likely to be narrative or meditative as they are lyric. Her wry sense of humor comes through in poems like ‘Woman Holding a Vase’ (after a Leger painting) and ‘Catalogue of People,’ while ‘Australia Day’ offers a lesson in politics, and ‘Seven Feet and Where They’re From’ hints at the range of knowledge the poet brings to bear on her work.
Lea provides some order and shape to this pastiche of poetic habits through the careful architecture of the book’s structure. Flight Animals is broken into four thematically grouped sections, each consisting of only eight or nine poems. In the end, however, it is not the structure or form of these poems that holds them together. Rather, it is the luxurious richness of Lea’s voice. The details and images she summons again invite a comparison to Li-Young Lee’s work; like his poems, Bronwyn Lea’s work is filled with beautiful and sensuous surfaces.
Her attention and skill is most frequently applied to descriptions of the natural world. This world is not, however, simply a pleasant backdrop for the poems in Flight Animals. Rather, Lea creates a natural world that is full of its own decay. In this, her work is reminiscent of H.D.’s Sea Garden; for H.D. there is a particular kind of beauty whose tenacity amid decay is in itself lovely. At times, Lea echoes this sensibility, such as in ‘Driving Into Distance’ where she describes a swarm of butterflies: ‘ten thousand/wings over I-5, tacking against the wind/striking my windshield in silent synoopation./It was oddly beautiful, these little losses.’ Elsewhere, the natural world is represented by a rotting oak, a dried rose, or silk chrysanthemums. The use of what is rotten or artificial in nature helps Lea to avoid preciousness, particularly as she does make such frequent use of common images like flowers and rivers.
The invocations of rot and decay also help Lea avoid the potentially saccharin. Take for instance her poem ‘Contemplating Chaos at Burleigh Heads.’ In it the speaker observes as her daughter plays in the surf and notes, ‘My daughter skips/a jellyfish across the flats. She is collecting / pippies in a bucket and wears wet flowers in her hair.’ Conventional wisdom would suggest that any writer offering opening lines as loaded with the potential for sentimentality as these should move on to new territory as quickly as possible. Yet as the next stanza opens, readers will find that the flowers are still with us, but now ‘are not flowers. They are drowned butterflies/that have washed up with the jellyfish.’ The transformation of the butterflies from living (flight) animals to lifeless ornaments in a child’s hair surprises and we do not feel manipulated by the situation’s potential for sentimentality.
It is the luxurious richness of Lea’s voice. The details and images she summons again invite a comparison to Li-Young Lee’s work; like his poems, Bronwyn Lea’s work is filled with beautiful and sensuous surfaces.
Yet this is perhaps also the source of one criticism that might be leveled at Lea’s book. For all their richness, some of these poems do not manage to create an interior life for their speakers that matches the quality of Lea’s lush exteriors. By relying so insistently on the image to communicate her emotional content, Lea sometimes seems to be striking an emotionally distanced pose. Neither does this pose always work effectively when paired with Lea’s frequent use of the first-person lyric ‘I.’
At her best, however, in poems such as ‘Christmas Day’ and ‘A Rush of Butterflies,’ Bronwyn Lea dazzles readers with her ability to handle form and image in an emotionally compelling manner. Utilizing the tanka form (a variation on the traditional Japanese haiku), ‘A Rush of Butterflies’ admirably illustrates how her images often do work to convey emotionally powerful content in a controlled manner: ‘Moon or not, moss hugs/a rock. See how I loved you?/See how I loved you?’ The simple repetition of the question in this passage brings Lea’s writing right to the edge of emotional territory that readers are often reluctant to enter. The pairing of this emotional content with the tight syllabic counts of her form and the simplicity of her images provides more than enough evidence that Bronwyn Lea is a skilled and savvy artisan whose future work holds great promise.
Sarah Perrier, University of Cincinnati, reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Antipodes 16.2, Dec 2002: 197-98.