Judith Bishop: Event: Poems

Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007, 68pp.

Judith Bishop’s brilliant first book, Event, appeared last year and if I’ve taken some time writing about it, it is because there is a lot to absorb and it doesn’t metabolize easily. Event has a quality shared by other first books (John Tranter’s Parallax comes to mind) of being highly organized while, at the same time, being composed of different sorts of poems.

There is almost a defensive quality about this, as though the author felt that it was imperative to pre-empt any descriptions involving the word “grab-bag”. It is divided into four sections with a single poem “Interval” in the middle. Allotted to different sections are poems which clearly belong (in the sense of “were written”) in groups. These include the poems about paintings and some prose poems about relationships – all are broken up and dispersed throughout the book. Even the central narrative sequence about Cortes’ translator and mistress in the conquest of Mexico is spread across three of the sections, as though Dona Marina found her life turning up in the pages of different books. The variety of poems makes it a really difficult book to feel confident about because the reader is challenged not only by a variety of interests but also by a variety of modes.

One tactic is to step back and take a distanced, impressionist view. The common themes of these poems turn out to be love, loss, betrayal and language. At a slightly higher resolution, the things the poems seem sensitive to, and are animated by, include: visitations and arrivals (the latter being the former seen from a different perspective), links between micro and macro perspectives, and links between the animal world and the human.

Event opens with two stunning poems, either of which is enough to ensure that this is a book to be taken very seriously. The second of them, “Desert Wind”, describes an urban winter landscape which, in a powerful and (to the reader) unexpected transformation, becomes something like a painting of a
desert scene:

High, bright winter morning: the tenement’s tree-antlers
clatter on each corner and the stepping black spines are smooth
and glossy as mirages; framed, the scene shines as if transported to a desert,
and never (since this winter day will not end hereafter, having left
the field of time), will the trees
flicker leaves again or carry broods of flowers . . .

The scene may be out of time but it doesn’t preclude the book’s first “arrival” – a “random bird” which

           alights, hoarse-throated after days of luckless questing
for a moth or a spider that has cellared spring rains in its body, so honeying
the juices of itself . . .

Later in the poem a snake arrives, searching for dead hummingbirds. The poem finishes on a note of optimism when “a human voice” (most likely the lover’s but, considering the ambiguities of “yours”, conceivably the poet’s or even the reader’s) rises “like a yam tendril” to animate the objects of this strange tableau. But it is the two birds of “Desert Wind” that I want to stay with.

There are birds everywhere in Event. The book’s second section has, pretty well, one per poem. In a description of Rembrandt’s “Presentation in the Temple” they figure as a simile which concludes a poem in which we don’t expect birds to appear at all “As the child’s foot stutters / like a just-fledged bird”. But the shock of the simile matches the shock of the birth of the divine child: one disturbs the poem, the other the universe. Birds seem symbols of arrivals from different dimensions. Many other poets are, pre-eminently, poets of annunciation in that they have imaginations strongly moved by the arrival of messengers (usually angels) from other worlds. The best of such poets don’t simply let the matter rest there though. Bishop wants to explore the origins of the arrivals, their perception of the new world and the result of the clash of the worlds that the bird bridges.

Which is a clumsy segue to the central narrative poems of Event, the sequence devoted to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, seen from the point of view of the Nahuatl/Mayan/Spanish speaker who accompanied Cortes as guide and mistress, most notably at his entrance into Tenochtitlan. The arrival of the Spanish is, of course, from the Aztec perspective, the arrival to end all arrivals: it simply puts an end to their empire. I’ve always thought of it as an example (like the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem) of a consistent, mythically-oriented culture suddenly being confronted by wider perspectives: in other words, reality or history or the world comes visiting. There are birds everywhere in this story: Montezuma identified the Spaniards with Quetzalcoatl the bird-serpent god whose return they awaited (no accident, then, that the two arrivals in “Desert Wind” are a bird and a snake). In the first poem of this eight poem sequence, Dona Marina (as a child) breaks the neck of a hummingbird which has been ejected from its nest. One of the great things about reading Event is that it made me read Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Aztecs: An Interpretation, and I owe to that book knowledge of the fact that, in their afterlife, brave Aztec warriors returned to earth incarnated as hummingbirds or butterflies. So, symbolically, Dona Marina destroys the warrior tradition of the Aztecs. Marina’s Nahuatl name means “grass” and in the third poem she imagines the gods arriving like winds:

Something builds across the skies today: a bent
to which the maize submits. These are the wind
bridges which the gods may use to visit us.
If they should come to break us,

I’ll desire them, I’ll arch. Grass is
as grass does . . .

The ferocity of the Aztec’s pantheon of gods makes them unusually pliant in the face of the invaders.

Arrivals require translators since an arrival can also be a linguistic irruption. One of the themes of this book is the way language betrays: it forms much of the material of the poems of the third section. It is fitting then that the final act of Dona Marina’s poem is an act of betrayal. An old woman offers to marry Marina to her son and lets slip that a revolt is being prepared in Cholula. Marina betrays the revolt to Cortes, provoking the famous massacre.

Birds are also associated in this book with scale. Many of the poems relate to the idea of a double perspective. The bird’s eye view (I did try not to commit that pun) is contrasted with a sensitivity to the world at a micro-level. The fourth poem of the book, the very fine “It Begins Where You Stand”, moves like a camera lens (or flying bird’s view) from the speaker to a small bird tapping on a window pane. This bird has a message but it is not about history or betrayal: it is about the intuition of the macro-event:

. . . . .
As the boy groans, the cardinal morse-codes her intuition
that the wind, within the hour, will have turned
toward the east;
and spawned a tornado in its wake

In “Vertigo” a blackbird arrives, “swooping out of her alarm”. “What is scale?” the poem asks, why does someone anxious to welcome “injured dogs, and kids / who come with bloodied knees” not respond to the far larger scale disasters of the world occurring at a pitch “lower than the melodies / familiar to your bones”?

The book, as a whole, wants to push us towards expanding the range of the signals we can absorb. There are three poems (also spread throughout the book) which signal their relatedness by having their titles in inverted commas. The first of them, “’And the Clouds Cleared the Sky . . .’” describes another desert wind. This wind is an arrival that does not touch the world of objects but alters our perspective of them:

. . . . .
                                        and the high,
efficient winds didn’t lift a dried leaf

or brush a sparrow’s wing, but caused a white dress and pine table
(white pine, the table dressed) to shine much more acutely, just as if

each form exploded and reformed, or blurred its outline then
resharpened at a higher resolution; or as if our

resolution was a matter of the light, or the timing of those changes
no-one owns, but all absorb . . .

The last of these three poems is the final poem of the book, “’The Chords of Snow Melting . . .’” Although I’m not sure that I understand the last line – which signals the author’s stake in the poem – there is no doubt that the bird has a hyper-sensitivity to the infinitely microscopic. And like the bird of “It Begins Where you Stand”, the bird which is introduced to share this poem with the humans can intuit the macro in the micro:

The chords of snow melting are unheard, perhaps, by any but the bird,
attuned with all its body

to the sawings of a grass blade or a seed falling from its flower head,
meaning danger, or future,

or the wind slowly gathering in force.
But see the snow – how in melting, it clarifies.

A pitch, low or high, must be sung by water molecules uncoupling
small attractions, gaining force and mutual distance.

Restless one, I know.
The songs we’re singing are as clear.

Other poems from Event focus on this juxtaposing of the human world and the animal world. “Rabbit”, which I first met in Judith Beveridge’s The Best Australian Poetry, 2006, takes a fresh look at this trope asking from the rabbit help in the task of reclaiming the animal in the human:

. . . . .
Rabbit, laid ragged at the fold of day’s field, where the sparrow-hawk stretched
the star’s scarf across her wing: with your velvet heart, you occupied
the blood’s old theatre: with your hushed ballet of spring, you
performed the coiled rites you have taught us tonight: showed our ropes of matter cut
by the one puppet-master, hanging in his own winds.

Another, lesser, poem, “The Birds Reported from the South”, reminds us that the hyper-sensitive world of the bird is one we can acknowledge but that ultimately there is a distance between us, even though we like to believe we are travelling in the same direction:

. . . . .
A briefly mutual gaze is the whole of our acquaintance,
my high-minded gull, my dear, quixotic mynah:
our eyes betray a knowledge of rigidity onstage,
then you turn away softly, to toss a twig or blade.

Hail, red-eyed pigeon; prancing sparrow, hail.
Tonight we file together, at some distance, to the show.

Birds and winds come from above, of course. And there is a strong sense in Event of the disposition of things on a vertical scale. The gods, in other words, do come from above rather than from the side. One of the painting-poems, “Sorretto da Quattro Angeli”, imagines the deposition as a falling from divinity to humanity and matches it against a young man suiciding by jumping out of a window during the Kosovo war. And a complicated poem, “Threnody”, begins with a mirror on a rubbish dump reflecting the blue sky and briefly connecting the lower with the upper worlds. In two poems, bees are trapped by surface tension and die by slowly giving up their body warmth to the lower world of the sea.

In this review I’ve dealt only lightly with the personal drama that underlies so many of these poems. I’m not being especially tactful here, it is more a result of an interpretive nervousness. No-one minds making a mistake about an author’s conception of, say, the animal world, but one doesn’t want to make a mistake about an author’s emotional life! Three of the prose poems are vey much about this, but “The Indifferent”, “Definition of a Place” and “Epistles” all share a sensitivity to what might be called the schematics of place: there are horizontal axes to be observed as well as vertical ones. In the first of these, the author walks the middle ground of the littoral between the low-tide sea and the high-tide detritus of “gull bones and cuttlefish blades” and in the second the lovers are at the bank of a creek with a bridge above them “holding up the shallow arc a bomb of swallows pitched under”. “Epistles”, the third, is the most complex of them but its opening – which unites virtually all of the things I have been speaking about – emphasises its importance:

Birds, insects plummet through our days like meteors, visitations, breaking the immutable glass fixed upon our sight by sunlight. It’s then we see the planets most vividly, through those quick breaches in the air: we see how terribly far from us they are. You, do you come closer to me than these falling wings, do you come, are you there, am I yours, in your own transparent orbit?

The poem finishes with a final arrival from above, a leaf which must be put on the stream and sent, against “the one direction of life”, up the stream towards the source.

As I said in opening, these poems seem to have been written over a long stretch of time. Moreover they seem (and it is only a reader’s impression) to have been written in small, consistent batches. One of the common features of first books is that they collect work from a far longer period than any subsequent book and so there is a kind of archeology involved in reading them. Bishop’s poems, at least on the evidence of those selected and arranged in Event, are very consistent in their interests and sensitivities. And these sensitivities – to arrival, to the layout of space, to translation (a word deriving from a spatial metaphor) – are engaging and rich in poetic potential. You want to see a second book, quickly.