Southerly review of poetry

Petra White reviews Flight Animals (UQP, 2001) by Bronwyn Lea. This extract first appeared in Southerly, 69.3 2009: 225-33.

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.


Silence that rings

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

by Lyn McCredden

These are witty, sometimes boisterous and meditative poems. There is a consistency of craft but an intriguing variety, and perhaps even contradictoriness, to their desires. Each poem is a little box of longing: for courage, for calmness, for love, for transcendence. Equally, the poems are often pleas for the self to abandon desire in its grasping forms, ‘to be whittled down to a twig & grow again into a tree’.

‘Two Ways Out’, the eponymous poem, lays out the map of the book: the human, desiring machine who must choose between opposing impulses: the ascetic and the rococo, two distinct paths by which to escape ‘the insufferable / medium of a par-boiled heart’. The poem, as with the volume, leaves you understanding something of both poetic journeys. Sometimes the two collide or are enmeshed in each other, in the figure of the poet who craves transcendence but who is impatient, who hasn’t ‘time to wait for grace’.

First, we are presented with attentiveness and an openness to the world; these qualities inform some of the quieter poems. ‘These Gifts’ records the way ‘the day has charmed you / with ephemera before you can object’. The fear of ‘Women of a Certain Age’ is stilled, but only momentarily, by an imagined world, ‘a new hospitable household’. In ‘Crows’, the desire is the search for ‘How to be / faithful to  the  crow-stepped  branch,  how to write / crow-scent in a human score’.

In such poems, we read the rich lyrical traces of Romantic attentiveness to the natural world, experienced as balm and nurse; but often it is with a very contemporary twist, a shaft of anti-Romantic and often humorous realism. ‘Crows’, for example, is a wonderful revelry on the dawn chorus of birds which ends with ‘the aural world giving / feedback,  shrieking like a microphone / too close to a speaker / & exploding into applause’. Ecstasy and discord enmeshed; the Romantic and the modern.

The second section of the volume, pop-culturally entitled ‘Where Is the Love?’, reflects modernity, but often through subtle contrasts. Individual poems may be set  historically, such as ‘The Nightgown’ with its distilled picture of ‘the Japanese woman in her desire’ who ‘commits to a life of dreaming / whether the lover appears or he doesn’t’. But the next poem, ‘Born Again’, is a tough and deliberate contrast, a revelation of modern desire: the divorced couple, the hatred still simmering, the bloody battle of the genders. Yet, in this raw evocation of modern love, there is the surprise of realisation in the observing wife, touched by grace and a vision of intimacy she imagines but has never experienced.

Love, or rather lost or broken love, permeates this section. The poems are never simply nostalgic or sentimental. ‘Routine Love Poem’, for example, could hardly be described thus. It is hard-nosed but with a deep draught of terror running through it. It is a confrontational poem, but also one which measures what is lacking, what might have been, in some better world beyond the repetitive, mechanical ‘they make & remake the coffee / they make and remake the bed’.

This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making.

The volume’s final section, ‘The Way into Stone’, brings the reader to another way of negotiating desire, with its Buddhist-inflected meditations. Here we are led to think back on that earlier choice between ascetic and rococo paths. The bell and the stone deliver their quiet, post-human calm, ‘alert to the silence that rings’. But we find here, too, a number of exhortations to courage, the decision to take ‘A breath, a step, a word’ and to make a beginning. The human starting point is seen constantly to be ‘insufficient knowledge’. But from such a place humans begin with hope, perhaps enabled by ignorance of the pain that awaits  them. So we read of ‘The  Isurumuniya Lovers’ from Anuradhapura, fifth century CE, who experience ‘the sweet flood between us’, enjoying each other absolutely ‘in staggered silence till the future came / to blind us with its mirror’, another version of the fall.

The final poem of the collection, ‘The Bodhisattva’s Hand’, is a fine meditation on peace, but also on action and courage infused with that peace. Gazing on the ancient sculpture, the poet observer depicts ‘this figure peaceful as a stick of green bamboo’, and tells us: ‘The hand calls us into the moment / in which the infinite crosses over into gladness / & we gaze at something singular & joined.’ This is a wonderful, culminating evocation of the whole volume’s philosophy: inclined to the ascetic, but equally to action, involvement, making. In fact, both inclinations, shared by many poets, are bound together in a dialogue: silence and words, peace and desiring, transcendence from this  world and being steeped in the world. So the final wisdom, earned by the accumulative power of the poetry and convincing, is in doubleness of ‘Accept the gift which is not transcendence // but your heart beating at its apprehension. / Here  is  your  life: unlock your fist & begin’. In this exhortation, we are taken back to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, cited on the opening page of the volume, especially perhaps to Eliot’s Four Quartets, with its own poetic movement between meditation and action.

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

Lyn McCredden reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008) by Bronwyn Lea. This first appeared in Australian Book Review (March, 2009): 47.

Fine connections in touching lines

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.

by Geoff Page

It’s been seven years since Bronwyn Lea’s remarkable first book of poetry, Flight Animals. Now, at last, we have its successor, The Other Way Out: New Poems. The initial collection was marked by a consistent level of technical excellence and an impressive variety of form and tone. The second, luckily, lives up to the very high standard Lea created for herself. Perhaps that is why she has waited so long.

The new book falls into three parts: the first dealing mainly with issues of life and death, the second revisiting an intense love affair and the third meditating, among other subjects, on Eastern religions and the architecture and art they have given rise to. The poems in all three sections are finely but unobtrusively tuned and build, typically, to a highly memorable last line.

In ‘Dog Days’, for instance, her sonnet on Brisbane, she uses a variety of images to evoke the relentlessness of that city’s midsummer heat: ‘The sky is a blue so pressing it falls/like glass to the ground.’ She finds herself drawn by ‘hope’ to the river and concludes her poem by noting how ‘Today the water slides by/in silence, a quavering less oppressive city //splayed upside down on the surface./A dog barks in the white light, just once.’ That ‘just once’ is a typical Lea touch, a nicely resonant full stop to the whole poem.

A similar compression and understatedness can be seen in Lea’s poem, ‘Ars Poetica’. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety and is plainly indicative of where she is heading in this second collection: ‘I used to want/to say one thing //& have it turn/out to be another./Now I only want //to say one thing./As if the pleasure //now is in the voicing/not the trickery //but the soul making/itself heard //above the traffic.’

There was not very much ‘trickery’ in Flight Animals but one can sense here the eloquent simplicity Lea is reaching for. Some of the poems, for example, ‘Love Begins with a Vision’ and ‘View from the Blue Pavilion’, read like haiku sequences. Others, such as the technically ambitious ‘Routine Love Poem’, use the repetition of simple elements, almost in the manner of a Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett. The poem also displays the persistent ambivalence running through many of the erotic love poems at the book’s centre. In ‘Palinode’, for instance, Lea begins ‘I have written before how I loved him/ but I have never written how I disliked him too.’ In ‘Born Again’ she has the deliciously malevolent lines: ‘Instead of dying, god spoke to him./God forgave all his trespasses. But I/didn’t forgive his trespasses against me./My heart was a long ledger.’

This degree of intensity carries over to into the book’s final section which, while it touches on temples, pavilions and terracotta warriors, is just as much concerned with the raw force of human emotions. We are given, for instance, Lea’s versions of the graffiti at Sigiriya, written between the seventh and 11th centuries AD. They begin: ‘I came & saw the girls with gold chains/between their breasts now heaven is no good.’

Another poem in the sequence has Lea’s narrator reminiscing: ‘Each night/I found the present-tense of you: your body/in the bed conducting light,/the little room lit up, my sex ransacked/by a branch of burning sky.’ This might sound melodramatic but the poem’s ending is convincing enough: ‘Each morning we walked/ in staggered silence till the future came/to blind us with its mirror.’

In some other poems in the last section (such, for instance, the deeply moving ‘Father and Daughter’) there can sometimes be, by contrast, an almost risky minimalism but these are dangers Bronwyn Lea is more than willing to deal with in her pursuit of the subtlety she aims for. The Other Way Out will be more than satisfying to the many readers who have waited since Flight Animals in 2001 alerted them to the presence of a poet who has, as Alan Gould has put it, ‘the humour … the tact … and the fine connections of a very singular sensibility’.

Geoff Page reviews The Other Way Out (Giramondo, 2008). This first appeared in The Canberra Times (13 December 2008): 16.



Poetic intimacies to be shared

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.

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.


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