Petra White: The Incoming Tide

Elwood: John Leonard Press, 2007, 52pp.

One of the difficulties with first books – and this superb debut by Petra White is no exception – is the lack of a host of previous publications to act as a kind of context for the reader. That makes a critic’s life hard and you are always nervous that you are going to get something terribly wrong. My sense of the poems of The Incoming Tide, however – accurate or not – is that they locate the self of the poet in three different ways: as member of a family, as worker and as inhabitant of a number of littoral areas, but particularly that between shore and sea.

Of these the third is the most important and I would describe White’s principal concerns as involving this macro-perspective and using work and the family as ways of anchoring it in the homelier, domestic world. This can make for some surprising and pleasurable shifts. The long sequence of poems, “Highway”, for example, describes a trip with a convoy (or perhaps putative “family”) of hippies made along the Eyre Highway through South Australia. This is littoral territory with a vengeance as Nullarbor Plain meets the Great Australian Bight providing cliff edge and horizon as horizontal limits. And the poetry rises to meet this challenge, especially in “Bunda Cliffs”:

The shelved-in sea hived with diagonals,
verticals, horizontals, slabs of sleek water
ferrying hazes of air in its crystal,

vapouring the desert’s tongue.
We funnel blue glimmers, personless gases,
far-outness pouring into the breath,

our own power just enough to keep us
from billowing out like kites. The cliff
props itself up, its piles of age and buried faces.
. . . . .

When, in the final poem, people run into the sea at Cactus Beach, a clever switch in perspective describes the land as though it were the sea:

When he tore off his rags and ran into the sea, we all ran in after him.

Beyond us was the jetty, a shark net, milky still water
that remembered the blood of a young boy.
Further out, the alpine peaks of whitest sand dunes.

The desert looked on, changed nothing.

But even a sequence with as cosmic a perspective as this carefully anchors it among people. The first two poems describe members of the expedition – a semi-demented misfit who is “our fool, our thing / of darkness” and a small boy who is, for a brief period, lost in the dunes – and the third poem, “Eucla Beach”, takes time out to describe the poet’s grandparents for no more obvious reason than that, on the trip from England, their boat would have passed this beach on its way to Adelaide and that the grandmother “would have loved it here”. Always a sucker for radical disjunctions, I find the appearance of the grandparents to be deeply satisfying and, of course, the poem encourages us to make order out of their inclusion. The grandmother’s walks, we are told, connected her to herself by unjoining “the joined-up dots” of the familiar, mapped world; emigrating to Australia was a spur-of-the-moment thing which was like “leaving the planet” but it results in the locating of the future poet:

. . . . .
Sea laps towards me like the breath of another,
and draws itself back to wherever I might have been.
. . . . .

And, finally, in Adelaide they were in a kind of desert “free of the crimes of a nation not-quite-really-theirs” and at Eucla “a past buries as easily / as sand moves”. We seem to be in an inverse of the Judith Wright world here: the essence of this family is not the discovery of indissoluble genetic bonds which mean that the poet is guilty because of the actions of her forebears, but rather – in the desert – the obliteration of such joined up dots leads to the discovery of self through making a new patter. That self is implicated in family, but not in any way determined by it. That, at least is my reading of “Highway”. It is a considerable sequence which, I think, is at the heart of where this poetry really wants to go. But I could be wrong.

The cosmic positioning also moves into the essentially philosophical area of the relationship between human self and natural world. I think that The Incoming Tide is bookended by poems that recall Wallace Stevens: the final poem, “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale”, does this overtly of course. The book’s first poem, “Planting” is a sonnet that has that Stevens-ish quality of fairly simple, abrupt documentation coupled with a refusal to help the reader as to significance:

So he gave you the tobacco plants, seedlings,
and you planted them behind the house
you half-lived in. He was nobody,
friend of a stranger’s friend. But he
gave you the seedlings and you pressed them
just lightly in the soil, before night
fell into rain, heavier, darker, greener
than the tiny sound or hair-line root
that might have flared into a moment’s light
as you lay still. When the rain
stopped, the eves and over-burdened gums
let fall their water, a long, unbounded echo
that welled into morning. The garden gurgled,
the plants drowned, the sound was yours all night.

An absolutely self-confident poem but not one that it is easy to feel comfortable with. Again, one searches desperately for context. A gift – a human, though remote, act – is drowned by the natural world. The frail threads of the roots of the seedlings are entirely subsumed by water. So far, so good, but the final clause “the sound was yours all night” is, of course, entirely equivocal. The “you” both possesses the sound of the water and makes the sound: thus, in the latter reading, becoming aligned to the heavy, dark and green natural world. It recalls Stevens’ great poem which begins as a simple assertion of the separation between the brute world of the sea and the singer but goes on further and further to enmesh the two.

In “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” it is the continuous interaction between the world of the sea, the world of the sky, and the human which is stressed. The scene is set on a pier, projecting out into the sea (which is, at Point Lonsdale, a channel entering Port Philip Bay). The sea and air are connected (raising a hooked fish is described as “fish / after fish seeps through the cloudy / eye of its brother”) while humans occupy a kind of interzone. There is nothing of the sublime or even vaguely creative in the world of these humans, however: they are no more than children fishing although there is an older fisherman who “shivers like a hatchling” and whose “dilate eye is blazing with / outward-seeking light”. I’m aware that both of these readings – of “Planting” and “Ideas of Order at Point Lonsdale” – are no more than inadequate gestures, of course, and we’ll have to wait for White’s next books to feel more comfortable with these poems.

Family is the central theme of three poems devoted to two grandmothers and a sister. “Munich”, dedicated to the grandmother who appears in “Eucla Beach”, is striking in that so much of what it does – ie what the poet finds important – is surprising. It begins, for example, with a description of Munich, the city that White is in when the bad news comes. But it doesn’t go on to conventionally lament absence; rather, it celebrates presence:

. . . . .
She didn’t entirely want to be remembered,
no grave, no plaque.
Her memories, freed from her head,
swarming in mine, or some of them:
the child I was who sat on her knee
and the child she was in blackout Stoke-on-Trent
step awake, two slippered ghosts,
past houses blasted to rubble and bones
. . . . .

As in “Eucla Beach” experiences are freed from their conventional and determined patterns and can be made into new and unusual ones, including fine poems. The second grandmother poem, “For Dorothy”, is unusual in that it portrays the woman, not in terms of her relationship to her granddaughter, but in terms of her surrounding children. And, finally, “Sister”, is a lovely, almost comically surprising poem whose essential structure is that it is about sisterhood only in its title and its last two lines. The bulk of the poem is devoted to a long and loving description of an axolotl “his polite uneraseable smile swanning / him upwards”. As the poem progresses through four eight-line stanzas the gap between the title and the content of the poem grows more and more intense so that the conclusion is that much more satisfying:

Descendant of the Aztec dog-god
Xolotl, who with mangled hands and feet
guided the dead to heaven, his once trans-
lucent form refuses catastrophe; more
than the ailing tabby, the timorous
and watchful high-heeled dog, or the rented
fireprone house, he guards our dangerous
childhood pledge to never change.

It is one of those rare poems which is simultaneously sophisticated and easy to grasp: it should be immediately anthologized.

Finally there is the world of work. Again it is a slightly surprising to find such a context-for-a-self in a first book but the tone is ideal: never outright contemptuous but open-minded, engaged and prepared to mock when necessary. One of the balancing techniques these poems explore is to let business speak for itself and so the sequence, “Southbank”, alternates meditations by the poet:

Our time is sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.

with monologues from management:

I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
          joins the Networks & 
Infrastructure Team to give cover
          until Jill returns
from maternity leave. . . .

“One Wall Painted Yellow for Calm” is a full-scale dramatic monologue done by a worker in a Job Network office. I am not sure how “found” it is but it captures a voice and person so brilliantly that The Incoming Tide becomes one of those rare books where you would say that this is a technique worth persevering with:

                              I know you’re probably thinking
          I’m just some geezer
who’d be like totally unemployed, if not
          for the unemployed -
so we’re all in this together. I always say,
          we are each of us
individuals, to whom anything can happen.
          Last week I had a chap . . . . .

What makes these work-centred poems work is the tone of balanced and involved observation: harder to do than it might seem on the surface.

As I’ve said, most of the poems in this book rotate around these issues of Family, Work and what might be called Cosmic Position. I’ve omitted “Grave” an ambitious and lengthy poem which moves beyond Cosmic Position into theology or at least religious ethics. It is built around the grave of a young girl and has several of those surprising shifts that mark out the poetry of this book, eventually working its way towards the problematic flood of Noah’s Ark, worrying, as many poems have done, why we focus on the few survivors and ignore the horror of the devastation under the water. But I’m not sure it is a successful work; for once the transitions seem too complex to follow and, although it makes sense logically, it is, perhaps, the one poem in the book where the surprises are not especially pleasurable. but if it is a failure, it is a rare one. This is a very accomplished and very complex first book by a poet who can be said to be, already, of considerable importance.