Australian Poetry Now

Once asked what poets can do for Australia, A.D. Hope replied: “They can justify its existence.” Such has been the charge of Australian poets, from Hope himself to Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright to Les Murray, Anthony Lawrence to Judith Beveridge: to articulate the Australian experience so that it might live in the imagination of its people. While the presence and potency of the Australian landscape remains an abiding interest, a great deal of Australian poetry has been innovative and experimental, with poets such as Robert Adamson, Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, John Forbes, Gig Ryan,   J.S. Harry, and Jennifer Maiden leading the way. The richness, strength, and vitality of Australian poetry is marked by a prodigious diversity that makes it as exhilarating to survey as it is challenging to encapsulate.

While the most convincing justification for the existence of Australia might come from its indigenous poets, Aboriginal poetry in Australia has been particularly overlooked, both its historical traditions and the innovative work being written today. >>Read more at Poetry Foundation

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.