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by alan gould

The quality in the art of Bronwyn Lea that I would most like to highlight is what I will call its equipoise. It is a quality to be found throughout this, her exquisitely well-wrought first volume, Flight Animals.

Bronwyn Lea’s poems argue, and because they do this with such intentness and unforeseeableness, it is difficult to quote from them piecemeal. But let me try to illustrate what I mean by equipoise in ‘Antipodes’:

In this lifetime, antipodes must be
my word, my home or anyone else’s.
Anyone who lives at opposites or knows
what it is to be contrary, to deviate. Like
disparate continents. Like the holding of
Europe and Australia in your blood.
This, I find, is a feat. And I recognise, as I age
that my apogees are elongating,
my reversals are rising like the swollen
belly of a frog storing water in its sleep.

Into the discourse are brought a friend, perplexed, like the speaker, by the ground upon which one can give and receive love, and a man, a lover, with ‘sand-heavy eyes’. The poem argues in favour of loving the thing-in-time rather than the Ding an sich, and how the disparity of claims made upon our nature can be reconciled when this view is taken. Her premisses are clear, her leaps of logic finely discerning, her images vivid, and only towards the end do we learn the poem has a dramatic context. For it is being meditated in the immediate aftermath of lovemaking, looking out on a particular view:

…Then just now, lying
in the low light of afternoon, I saw
it is the movement more than the man
that I love, the movement in and out
of me, framing the sweet falling
of lilac pollen, falling soft upon his back,
my tongue.

So, the poem’s equipoise lies in the balancing of its forces, abstract proposition and personal feeling, worldwide tectonics with the intimacy of two human bodies alone together, argument with confiding, a casualness in the diction with an incisive control of the intellectual substance, an audacity in the turns of discourse with a sureness of how the whole should resolve itself. In this poem, and throughout the volume, the close attention this poet requires us to bring to her work is rewarded by the sense of an entirely new arrangement of thought and feeling having been made.

Deeply Bronwyn Lea has absorbed the example of Wallace Stevens. Her doctoral thesis was entitled ‘To Dwell in Possibility’ and like the American poet, the poems in Flight Animals make the case for the status of the imagination. Imagination creates, not likenesses of being, but new states of being. The poem is ‘the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it’.

The pace is characteristically calm, the emotion complex, the eye attentive for just the image that will illumine her reasoning without overstatement, that will catch the humour, create the tact, the fine connections of a very singular sensibility.

To take one poem from this book as I have done is useful in describing the intellectual and emotional finesse in Bronwyn Lea’s work, but it does not do justice to her range. Flight Animals abounds in poems achieved in ways never quite expected. The twenty-six proverbial distinctions in ‘Catalogue of People’ mingle aphoristic sagesse with a humour that subverts the endemic smugness of distinctions. Her ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’ is as much a gentle pastiche of John Forbes’ ‘Four Heads & How to Do Them’ as a means of entering attitudes of mind, historical, ethnographic, etymological. Entailed in this sequence – ‘The Chinese Foot’ particularly – is a gift for story-telling that is elegant, delicate, purposive. In her tanka sequence, ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, she places a series of deft images to describe the process of sorrowing after lost love:

By my foot, a skink
Fixes an eye on me – more
Devoted than you.

My shovel splits an earth worm –
I watch the two ends wriggle.

But her qualities are more typically integrated within the single utterance than incidental to several poems. Often her preoccupation is with mutability. In poems like ‘Deepcreek Hotsprings’, ‘Orthograde’, ‘Woman Holding a Vase’, the pace is characteristically calm, the emotion complex, the eye attentive for just the image that will illumine her reasoning without overstatement, that will catch the humour, create the tact, the fine connections of a very singular sensibility.

Alan Gould reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Quadrant Volume XLVII (Oct 2003): 68-74.