Elsewhere with equipoise

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

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.

Island poetry review

Judith Beveridge reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Island 88 (Summer 2002): 90-97.

by Judith Beveridge

Bronwyn Lea’s first collection Flight Animals is an extremely assured and accomplished volume. It’s full of finely wrought poems fusing together both delicacy and potency. Many of her poems are about the perishable nature of love and desire, and her skill lies in capturing the tensions between our need to hold on and make durable that which is essentially fugitive. As a result there’s often a tone of sadness in her work, yet there is also wisdom, a wisdom gleaned from taking the fallen, deciduous nature of things into oneself and there finding the inherent beauty.

Lea’s poetry walks that delicate ground of looking back with sentiment and sadness, yet still maintaining integrity with the present. Although there’s nostalgia in her work, she never lets it become cloying or sententious – she’s too fine a poet, and too rigorous in her perceptions, always letting an image carry her resolving adjustments:

I can look forward to the future –
the geometries of things to come – carrying
lightly the weight of my nostalgia,
rejoicing in my catalepsy,
celebrating only myself – my chic
design, my sheen, my sheet metal surface,
my fact of being, my heroic act
of forgetting. Arranging flowers with
timeless, jazzy optimism.

It is not surprising that Lea, having spent a good part of her life away from her native Australia, should consider landscape and place as a valuable backdrop for exploring movement and change. In ‘Antipodes’, desire and geography undergo powerful fusion, as Lea brings under the one tether the seductive fluctuations of time and place. Similarly, in ‘Tomorrow I will Plant Flowers Find a New Place to Hang my Keys’, change and movement are again what remain after the fleeting, intimate fragilities are packed away. Yet so delicately does Lea render this that the ‘old yellow teacups / with broken edges’ take on a beloved charm:

I have loved these cups and cared for them
because, in them, I have seeped the tea
for so many exiles. Bright bodies
full of fragrance and bits of orange.

Lea’s images are not only beautifully chosen, but also beautifully arranged. They have balance and owe a lot to meticulous attention. Lea also values the way a line can rhythmically distribute emotional momentum, giving her thought over to sensualities inherent in certain orchestrations, such as the beautiful pacing and composition she achieves in these fines from ‘The Wooden Cat’, where the soft accumulation of the participles carries the tenderness:

…how my distempering dog, her nerves buckling
under the weight of the virus, her lungs
as senseless and lacking in integrity
as a colander, smiled one morning and let
death do the breathing for her.

Lea’s superb technical skill is also evidenced by her series of perfectly configured haikus ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, and her use of syllables in ‘The Aboriginal Foot’. This latter poem is from the sequence ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’. They began, as Lea says in her notes, as a response to John Forbes’s poem, ‘Four Heads & How to Do Them’. Her first poem, ‘The Greek Foot’, closely adheres to Forbes’s opening poem ‘The Classical Head’ (variations in parenthesis):

Nature in her wisdom has formed the human feet (head)
so they (it) stands at the very bottom (top) of the body.
The feet (head) – or let us say the foot (face) – divides into three,
the seats of fortune (wisdom), refinement (beauty) &fate (goodness) respectively.

But it is Lea’s genius to take the clever, conceptual framework Forbes has established and make her poem an engagement, not with literary values and their application, but with human suffering: ‘Socrates said when our feet hurt we hurt all over.’ For me the highlight of this sequence is the poem ‘The Chinese Foot’. Here, Lea focuses on the husband’s cultural and erotic interpretation of his wife’s disfigurement, and through the accumulation and accretion of impeccable, sensual imagery horrific ironies are revealed. The comparison of the bandaged foot to a temple is indicative of Lea’s incisive and penetrative skills:

The bandage wraps figure eights
around her heel, across the crest
of her foot and tightly over her toes
(which are black and pressed
to her sole) so that her arch breaks
magnificently with the steep pitch
of a temple.

Flight Animals is a superb debut, and full of poems of such beautiful surety, both in manner and execution, you would think it was written by a poet burgeoning into mid-career. Bronwyn Lea, then, is a poet whose future would appear to be exceedingly bright.

Judith Beveridge reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Island 88 (Summer 2002): 90-97.

Timeless, jazzy optimism

Stephen Lawrence reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in JAS Review of Books Issue 10, Nov 2002.

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
changes …

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.


Passionate for poetry

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).

by Rosemary Sorensen

Bronwyn Lea is fast becoming one of Australia’s most celebrated poets. No sooner had she received the good news that she was this year’s recipient of the Wesley Michael Wright Poetry Prize, administered by the University of Melbourne, than she learnt her book, Flight Animals, is the winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers poetry award.

Poetry awards don’t get much notice in the wider community but in the vigorous, passionate and competitive world of poetry, such accolades carry clout.

These two latest come on top of the 2001 Somerset National Poetry Prize, and the 2000 Arts Queensland Poetry Prize.

She has every reason to be up-beat about her own success but Lea, 32, is equally optimistic about the state of poetry. She’s part of a small team at the University of Queensland who have seen their rather bold move into offering a course in poetics take hold in a pleasingly big way. The course has proved far more popular than they had hoped.

It’s not just would-be poets coming to the party. Like Lea herself, it’s people wanting to find out why they are attracted to the patterns of poetry, the nuts and bolts of prosody that have been downplayed in English classes.

“Poetry is more popular now than it ever was. There are more people who are literate, more poetry being published, and the web presence is huge,” Lea says.

She has the facts and figures to back up her claims. Apparently, the word poetry is the most popular term in web searches – what does that say about the digital revolution? “It fits on the screen,” suggests Lea, “and our attention span these days is so short. And then there’s the technology that gives us audio, too. I can get on the Web and listen to Adrienne Rich reading her work.”

American poet Rich is one of Lea’s favourites, and one of the examples she is using in the thesis she is writing for the University of Queensland on the role of poets in society.

Rich represents the activist role, Mayakovsky the role of the worker, the Indian poet Tagore that of the mystic. Out of Australia, what other role could we demand of a poet than as “cultural definer” – Les Murray, of course.

The roles aren’t distinct, Lea says, but her topic is giving her the opportunity to think carefully about the way different societies turn to their poets for help and inspiration. Across cultures and groups within society, however, there are some fundamental yearnings behind the evergreen desire for poetry.

“It’s because people know they can come together at a poetry reading and listen to something that speaks honestly. Poetry is a seeking and searching, trying to get into `big T’ truths.

“Even if the events portrayed aren’t done so accurately, it’s the authenticity of the words. Often in poetry you’re trying to get around the slipperiness of life.”

Rosemary Sorensen reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in The Courier-Mail (16 Feb 2002).

New poet produces a collection of unusual merit

Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

111193756Geoff Page reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (1 Dec 2001): 16.

First collections of poetry rarely come more assured than Bronwyn Lea’s Flight Animals. At 32, Lea seems to have mastered contemporary American free verse and have the confidence to work in a variety of modes, from the haiku to the modified sonnet. Her poems are full of telling, sensuous detail held together by a low-key rhetoric that, while not afraid of emotion, nevertheless maintains an artistic detachment. Flight Animals has four thematic sections, of which the central two are the most memorable. Here, in poems such as ‘Original Sin’ (a wry but heartfelt elegy to a friend who says before she dies: if / I could live my life over again, I would / have more sex and fewer children), Lea uses a characteristic combination of simple detail and unobtrusive metaphor to embody a diversity of intense emotional experiences. Notable too are Lea’s formal skills. These range from the blank-verse sonnets in ‘Handing Back Time’ through to the remarkable combination of linked haiku and couplets in ‘A Rush of Butterflies’, the latter working very much by association, like the Persian ghazal. There is also the extended prose poem ‘Catalogue of People’, with its oracular paradoxes and their clever, often playful resolutions. There are those who believe God lives and those who believe God is dead. Both believe. In addition to this there are also a lighthearted but substantial tribute to John Forbes in ‘Seven Feet & Where They’re From’ and a number of engaging haiku (all of which maintain the 5/7/5 syllabic form). Perhaps two of the latter are as good a way as any to give a taste of Night Animals or, at least, a sample of its flavours: ‘A ring-tailed possum / squatting in the magpies nest / China in Tibet’ or ‘Losing you I prune / the bright red leaftips my breasts / aching from hedging’. Not all the poems are as immediately likeable as the ones I’ve talked about but there is little doubt Lea deserves the extravagant back-cover praise heaped on her by the poet MTC Cronin, and the critic Martin Duwell, of whom the latter should perhaps be given the last word:

‘These poems are resonant and delicate, but they are also very tough in mind and spirit. Their brilliance is immediately apparent. In short, an impressive first book.’

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