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by Geoffrey Lehmann

Why do people write poetry? Unlike Damien Hirst, who auctions artworks fabricated in his workshops for millions of pounds, poets get little money from their poetry. Nor is there much fame, and sometimes it seems as though there are more poets than poetry readers.

So why write poems? One reason may be the longevity of a good poem. Thousands of lines of ancient Greek poetry have survived for more than two millennia. This compares with some rare fragments of their music (less than 50 minutes recorded for Harmonia Mundi in 1978), none of their paintings (although they ranked this art form with their sculpture) and a few remnants of their best sculpture.

Poetry is like bits of DNA. It codes itself into our minds and transports itself down generations, popping out at odd moments, such as the poem by W.H. Auden read out in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. But it is still worrying. Where will the new good poets come from?

It’s therefore a great relief to read Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out. Still a year or so short of 40, Lea may be the brightest light to emerge in Australian poetry since the start of this decade. Her poetry is intense, personal, intelligent and witty. She is able to make her lines move briskly and economically and create surprises. In ‘Born Again’, which is surely a modern classic, she describes a divorce from a man

who sold his house
by the beach and drove his Volkswagen
into the desert to die. He was gone
a year. I was living one vertical mile
above the desert floor – where he slept
in his car.

The vivid detail about living one vertical mile above the desert floor puzzled me for a few days. Then I realised I’d been a bit stupid. The persona of the poem, presumably Lea during her years in the US, had gone to live in a mountain region such as Colorado, where she would be one vertical mile above the desert floor. The ex-husband doesn’t die as he’d planned. He becomes a ‘born again’.

‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I / didn’t forgive his trespasses against me. / My heart has a long ledger.’

The ex-husband comes to collect his daughter from the mother’s snowbound house, presumably on parental access. The mother gathers her daughter’s things. ‘It took a little while. When / I returned he was gone. Typical.’ She looks around and discovers him praying in the snow. In an ironic conclusion, Lea recalls:

Snow collected on his upturned palms.
I felt its coldness. Such intimacy
we had never shared. Sometimes grace
Comes like that, it falls like snow.

Geoffrey Lehmann reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian 6-7 Dec 2008: Review 8-9.