Southerly review of poetry
by petra white
The Other Way Out is Bronwyn Lea’s second book of poems; the first, Flight Animals, appeared in 2001 to much acclaim. Flight Animals established Lea’s particular quality of lightness and wit, which at times permits a grandeur (‘Even the bells of San Blas cannot wake him’). The titles and poems of both books speak of restlessness, a need to escape. But The Other Way Out may also be a Way In. It is a quote from TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: ‘There is another way out, if you have the courage’. Many of the poems establish a sense of reaching an impasse: there is a quality of absoluteness, in poems such as ‘Who is he’:
Who is he walking towards me
his spine straight as if the wind
means nothing. His eyes
what can I say. One look grants me…
The character, the ‘he’ in this poem, is not specific; we know nothing about him, he is just ‘love’, or every new lover, who ‘floats my will away’ (a lovely erotic phrase). It is unclear why loss is so sure. Is it simply that one has to be prepared for it? There is a sense of self-teaching in this poem, a stealing against the inevitable: ‘if you will risk, as I do, loving / what you will surely lose.’
This inclination towards the absolute is a strong feature of many of the poems in this book. ‘Ordinary Grace’ pivots on an abrupt dichotomy — ‘there is no language / of the holy I think’ — and turns from this to the ‘amorous prattle’ of galahs ‘flashing their pink undersides as I sink / into the green & watery / vernacular of the natural world’. The ‘holy’ has nothing to offer poetry: the poet belongs in the ‘vernacular of the natural world’. The holy enters this poem only as a counter to the vernacular: there is no sense of what the holy actually is, or what it is doing there. It is there to help the poem make a statement. And the surprise of the galahs and the loveliness of the ‘green and watery vernacular’ fortunately succeed in upstaging it.
Yet, perhaps these more severe poems are a key to the toughness and resoluteness that forms the spine of — and takes different forms in — many of Lea’s poems, the best of which combine a formal sense of the absolute with something fresh and original, rather than generalising. ‘Palinode’, with its intimate opening lines ‘I have written before how I loved him / but I have never written how I disliked him too’, is a witty and self-effacing confessional tale of a bad relationship. ‘Seferis’, like ‘Ordinary Grace’, has a lesson: ‘I hate knowing / my life will not be long enough’. But it comes in the context of other complex realisations:
There is a sense that if
the slightest crack opened up in this faultless
scene all things would spill out beyond
the four points of the horizon & leave me
naked, alone & begging for alms. I hate knowing
my life will not be long enough.
The rhythm of this is urgent and compelling, and balances contemplation of the immediate, the infinite and mortality. In a similar vein, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’ is a subtle study:
The hand calls us into the moment
in which the infinite crosses over into gladness
and we gaze at something singular and joined.
Accept the gift which is not transcendence
but your heart beating at its apprehension.
Here is your life: unlock your fist and begin.
Another grand statement, but also an arresting one. Still, I mostly prefer Lea’s lighter poems. I think of her as a poet whose topic is lightness — with wisdom. In her best poems a sense of absurdity and improbability works well to manhandle the still-present notion of resignation, or acknowledgement of ephemerality and soonish death. ‘A Place’ is a wonderful short poem:
There is a place I like to go
that is behind language.
I like to go there and wobble
like a melon on a table
or a spoon that doesn’t care
if it is chosen or not.
This ‘domestic poem’, using objects fit for a still life, incorporates a philosophical position. Which self is which? Perhaps this is about ways in and out of the self.
Petra White reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.