Sarah Holland-Batt: Aria

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008, 62pp.

In the last few years Australian poetry has seen a number of exciting debut collections and Sarah Holland-Batt’s Aria is another that can be included in that happy genre. In fact it is a knockout collection and this came as something of a surprise to me since I had met only a few of the poems in journals when preparing for our annual Best Australian Poetry anthologies and, when seen in their journal incarnation, they were far too disjointed to show a reader how they wanted to be read.

For a first book Aria is very coherent despite the fact that it is full of different modes. The poems seem to be strung between two poles. There is an overwhelming sensation of lost love and grief which drives the poems towards brevity and stasis and, at the other extreme, a kind of escape into longer poems which inhabit the sky rather than the ground. I’m immensely taken with these more optimistic, freer, longer works. Their mode is operatic and rhapsodic and it is no surprise that the book’s major cultural references are late-high-romantic: Rachmaninov, Puccini and Mahler. Hence also the abrupt title, Aria.

We meet the conjunction between loss of love and stasis as early as the book’s second poem, “Shore Acres”. It’s a powerful piece:

. . . . . 
But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;
the water is static as land, and stripes
of foam bone its slate like a corset.
We are here for the end of movement.
You stay to watch the ocean. I go back
to the Japanese garden . . .

One of the impressive things about this poem is the way it embeds exhaustion into the movement of the poem itself and it does this while retaining the generally enjambed style that, in other, different poems, keeps the whole thing moving quickly. Even the book’s epigraph from The Cherry Orchard, “I know that happiness is coming, Anya, I see it already”, subtly associates happiness with movement.

In an odd way, loss of love and the resultant state of psychic depression are unpromising material poetically. They are potent, resonating experiences but that is all: they don’t encourage verbal coruscations, for example, the way a rhapsodic response to the natural world can. They can result in a continual grinding down which produces a poetry which is spare to the point of being minimalist. This is reached, I think, by a three line poem, “Laughter and Forgetting”:

We have no name for this wilful happiness.
We just wake to it every morning, in love,
but one always loving the other a little less.

It’s a small brilliant piece, balancing happiness and grief, but one couldn’t make a whole poetry out of this mode. I think “Letter to Robert Lowell” is an attempt to resolve this difficulty. It’s an act of mimicry, overtly copying the Lowell of “Skunk Hour” and “Night Sweat”. The last two stanzas will give some idea of it:

The traffic crawls toward the Tower Mill.
Two o’clock: in my left temple
a migraine builds: jots
and temporary sketches
skid across my field of vision,

two white dots conjoined, twinning
like the searchlights they raked
the river with last night.
A suicide. The man
couldn’t swim, and washed in with the tide.

If I had to guess what was happening in this poem, I would say that Holland-Batt, by briefly inhabiting the poetic method of Lowell (a method in which a diseased mind imposes itself on the environment, isolating stories and sites of misery) allows pain into a poem without the movement towards stasis that this usually involves. In fact the movement is towards baroque elaboration. I said that it was an act of mimicry: it might be more accurate to say that it is borrowing the mode of a vastly different writer and trying it on (perhaps with a wry apology to its owner) as though it were a coat. Something similar happens in “Not a Life, But Like One” which looks like an imitation of one of the Americans (James Wright, Galway Kinnell?) who do wintry stoniness well: “Lights over the bridge. The coldest wind. / And a little rain straining to make itself heard / on the way down to the river.”

Interestingly, “Francesca in the Second Circle” seems, by introducing Dante’s notion of Hell, to contradict the poet’s overall scheme because the essence of the punishment of the lovers is that they do move: they run before the dark wind which symbolizes the passions they were damned for. Paradise is the static place and Hell (or at least its upper reaches) is a place of miserable movement. The poem makes sure that it harmonizes with the overall scheme of things by emphasizing – as Dante does – that the movement is circular. And so, as I read it, Francesca prefers the continuous and cyclic revisiting of misery which is a kind of stasis. She, after all, is the one who famously says, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in times of misery” and I like the idea that this might hint that her depressed state remorselessly forces her to revisit the good times like probing a bad tooth.

Two poems, “Late Aspect” and “The Art of Disappearing” are about one of the results of stasis in that the poet gets subtracted from the entire scene. At least this is what seems to happen in the former poem where the objects of existence remain but they are no longer animated by a perceiving human presence – rather as in Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode”:

As for the veranda: it is empty.
A windchime sieves the air, and the cicadas
emerge like metal stars.
The night is preoccupied with its own story:
the unpainted ladder flush against white
weatherboard; a curl of dry duct tape spiralling
from the tennis racket like an apple peel;
the fierce, unfilled shadow eclipsing the hammock.
This evening I have abandoned the possibility
my questions will be answered in a voice
I can understand, and but for my present
outlines I disappear, my face covered
by the haggard, smoky sky; the garden, the night
ringing with the sawing pulse of insects, that unison
for which there is no human word.

I really like this poem because it is so intelligently intense: it is a long way from a howl of misery. In its almost dispassionate look at what is going on among the objects of the world the world during grief, it reminds me of John Scott’s great poem, “’Changing Room’” which finishes:

She’s leaving; and the similes are gone.
A borrowed room, and everything quite suddenly
and only like itself: this coat, this coat.
          This floor, this floor.

Then there are the longer poems. These are not consistently or simply rhapsodic but what is happening in them is very different. I think they all share a freedom of poetic movement and this movement itself gives the impression of a freer poetic imagination. Of course, in “Rachmaninov’s Dream”, the composer dreams his dream – simultaneously of the lost past and the frightening future – while composing the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini so this poem is literally in a rhapsodic milieu.

I think the most important of these longer poems is “Remedios the Beauty” a sort of dramatic monologue from the point of view of Garcia Marquez’s famous levitating washerwoman. It is hard to resist a reading of it which makes it an allegory about the writing of the very poems I am speaking about. In this reading Remedios’ flights are the poet’s flights as she explores the freedoms of composition in an extended mode. What is striking are the unpredictable twists and turns of the poem which can thus symbolize the freedoms in this all-movement mode. Look at the first dozen lines, for example:

Levitation is easy. I am at home
with the peregrines; I move
in their registers, where each small kindness - 
a quick kill, mercy – passes, weightless
and unremarked. Gusting thermals bring
me parallel to the sky’s cusp, papered
and insubstantial as a sucked egg.
Here, time rounds its edges through wires
of nimbus. It could be years. The names
of small things – animals, stones – flake
away, fish splintered from the spine,
the jacket lifting, curled and loose.
My body comes into a new lightness.
Surrounded by snow, water washing
water then thawing it, letters fall 
in the drifts, the crystalline seraphs
dissolving into a vast dark stretch . . .

And so on, including revisiting earth. As I’ve said, it seems a poem which celebrates the freedoms possible in its own making. And the continuous enjambments of Holland-Batt’s style mean not so much that we misread lines as that two separate meanings can run concurrently. So in the first line, Remedios is home (in her grandmother’s house on earth) and by the second she is home in the sky.

We always search, in the work of a new poet, for a “poem-poem”, a poem which works as a kind of allegory of what the author thinks a poem is. “Remedios the Beauty” might well fill that role in Aria, but so might a small poem, “Materials”, which appears in the middle of the book:

I am trying to understand memory,
how it is that after all the falling and failing
these floorboards still sing. Woodsmen
sounded this cedar so the emperor could sleep,
and each mournful creak has carried
centuries. So my feet practise
a broken music scored for his enemies.
The men who built these halls understood:
best not to think it will last forever.
House the emperor in paper and wood.

Unfortunately, it is one of those frustrating poems that you suspect are perfectly straightforward from the author’s perspective but which elude a reader’s grasp. There is a reference to the “nightingale floors” which Japanese carpenters built deliberately so that they would squeak when used: this was a security device that made it difficult for an assassin to approach the Emperor, though what it did for the sleep of the Emperor himself, I’m not sure. One way of reading the poem is to respond to the author’s initial admiration for the fact that these things still work after several hundred years: you house Emperors in wood and you house memories in poems and, if you are lucky, those poems will resonate down the years, still working for casual visitors years from now. Or we could focus on the fact that the author comments that her walking on the floors is exactly what the enemies of the Emperor do. If we allegorize the Emperor as memory then the poem might be saying that the only way memory can be approached is through processes that are inimical to it. That would make it a much bleaker poem, epistemologically: the approach to experience destroys the experience. I’m not sure.

Back to the abrupt title. Are there any other books of Australian poetry with such a small (four letters) title? It’s the kind of question which, in a civilized country, might occupy pundits on a TV program. There turn out to be (according to a quick search in my shelves) a number of five letter titles (Anna Couani’s Italy, Kris Hemensley’s Trace, Philip Hammial’s Swarm, for example) but as far as I can see only two other five letter titles: Judy Johnson’s Jack (Pandanus Books, 2006) and Philip Roberts’ Crux (Island Press, 1973). At any rate, it’s obviously important to the author that the book should choose something that represents the more optimistic reach of the binary. The first time I read it, I thought that “the end of movement” – or even “here for the end of movement” (a phrase from the book’s second poem) – might be a better, because more striking, title but that would only have reflected the bleaker component of Holland-Batt’s vision.