Louise Oxley: Buoyancy

Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2008, 87pp.

Buoyancy is Louise Oxley’s second book. Her first, Compound Eye, was published in Five Island Press’s admirable New Poets series in 2003. I mention this because the books in that series are little more than pamphlets and Oxley’s entire output (she is now near her mid-fifties) thus amounts to little more than a hundred pages. There are poets who produce that much every two years. One of the results of producing so little, so carefully, though, is that there is a high degree of consistency within the poems: they may often be very different as poems, but reading them we are clearly in the same world and it’s a world that one can get to know and admire.

It’s instructive to look at the first poems of each book. Compound Eye begins with “Night, Connelly’s Marsh”:

a plover is grating the dark
into stars      the cry springs
like blood along a scratch

I trip on a loose plank
on the jetty      the wood is tense
the moon askance

who lied first to whom?

your letters have become
mere shoals of fingerlings
small change

a cormorant will pocket them

I’ll wait here for a while
between breaths
spanning tides

It’s what might be called an expressionist piece. The driving force is personal pain and it is allowed to distort perceptions of the natural world so that the plover’s call grates and arises like blood along a new scratch. It is also a short-breathed, tense poem – the kind that talented beginners often produce before they get the confidence to inhabit larger, calmer structures. Given how good the other poems of Compound Eye are, this may be no more than an accident: no doubt all these features could be justified mimetically so that lack of personal confidence is seen as reflected in a lack of syntactic and stylistic confidence.

Buoyancy begins with a poem about watching a whale breach off the Great Australian Bight. As with “Night, Connelly’s Marsh”, everything is set in a liminal site: the continent drops away into sea and the whale emerges from water into air. Unlike the first poem, though, there is a relaxed, “long-breathed” quality about “Surfacing”. It too might, of course, be mimetically responding to the whale’s breath, but it is really a matter of poetic confidence that all the details are sufficiently animated by meaning and observational precision so that the poem never loses its momentum:

Here’s where the Nullarbor stops.
As if it suddenly forgot itself, the land
falls into the sea and I am groundless.
You are too, but you belong there;
you come out of the blue like a dreamer from sleep,
breaking from its lilt and swing, lift and sink.
Where the elements give way, nebulae of spume
drift off, constellations from the edge of space.
With a headful of echoes and krill
and a crystalline eye angled against refraction
you are making sense of latitude and current,
sizing up the horizon from below. Bejewelled
in barnacles, breaching worlds,
you are all collision, elision,
a balancing act on a fluke, a moment of trance, 
an evolutionary quirk.
. . . . .

The brief reference to the self in the third line warns us that we are still in the same world where it is personal distress that is driving the poems and this is taken up in the last lines:

it’s as if the earth were too hard,
walking too painful, as if
to open the throat and cry, to draw breath
through mouth and utter, to close a hand and grasp
were nothing, and I wish I, like you,
were a thing of the past.

These represent some kind of climactic shock but there is nothing trivially dramatic about it. The magic of “Surfacing” seems to me that it balances the personal and natural world very complexly and beautifully. At one level the careful observation of the animal can be read as the mind distracting itself before it returns to more pressing matters. This would make it something like Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge”. But there is a more intimate relationship between whale and viewer than between plant and poet. The whale has, among mammalian features such as a sex-life, a quality of balance which is a result of buoyancy. And the book’s title alone warns us that this is going to be one of the reference points of this world.

We meet it as early as the second poem of Compound Eye, “Paper Nautilus”. These shells, washed up periodically on the beach, seem to be used as symbols of poems. Interestingly, since they are empty, they represent poetry made from loss, “a tentative tracing of absence / the rare orchids of loving words”. Even more interestingly, and as an example of the kind of balance between the personal and natural that Oxley does so well, they induce metaphors within the poet herself:

Now I think of a spooked mare
tucking her tail under
or a fair-haired girl in a french plait

And the shell’s rising to the surface (and to the surface of the consciousness of the poet) is, like the whale’s surfacing, a metaphor as well as a reality:

she sings to the surface
rising surely as a phrase long practised
the sea’s dark lyric
never failing beneath her

“Paper Nautilus” seems to come halfway between “Night, Connelly’s Marsh” and “Surfacing” in that, though an extended poem, it does have staccato quality as though observations were being thrown out serially. But it also has a surprising ending which, like that of “Surfacing”, returns us to the personal though in a way so radical that I am not at all sure what is happening: at worst it remains a bracingly abrupt surprise for the reader:

Here you are at fifteen
leaving the water
a wonder of lengthening limbs

seeing the camera
your head on one side
those childbearing hips that have
so far as I know
remained empty

The obsession with rising and floating makes some sense of a powerful early poem, “Voice Over”, the first poem by Louise Oxley that I remember reading (I included it in the 2003 Best Australian Poetry). It is a “full” narrative, rather than a lyric poem with narrative elements, telling of the rescued sailor who has been alone in the sea, treading water for so long, that he continues to do so in bed in the submarine which has rescued him. Eventually he stops by being encouraged to think of walking home, of “surfacing” into the “real” world:

. . . . . 
It was the doctor’s silvery
potion of reason that broke his stride.
He was walking now, uphill, along
the line of argument
and it was growing dark.
Someone had ploughed the home paddock
in his absence; breakers of loam
clung to his boots. Upstairs a light was on.
She would be bent to her sewing.
He raised his eyes.

“Buoyancy” itself is a poem about observation – and thus about poetry. The personal element is very subdued but the line “You taught me this as we waited for platypus, None came” establishes both human relationships and a setting of absence – in this case, non-appearance. The poem seems to be saying that the creatures which have buoyancy live balanced between elements and their life is involved in making “ecstatic circles”. It concludes:

A wallaby thumped once, waiting to come down for a drink.
Then the silence of moss, the forest spongy with yielding,

while bull-ants worked their songless chain-gang
along the log where we sat suspended over water,

the beetles too, marooned, held by the skin of the lake
in a planetary gyre, a half-eye on one life and a half on the other.

A conclusion that introduces another element in this poetic universe, that of sight and sight-lines. It reminds us that the whale of “Surfacing” has an “eye angled against refraction” and is able to make some visual sense of both worlds. There are a lot of poems about seeing in “Buoyancy”. “Line of Sight”, for example, deals with the man who is in charge of a microwave broadcast tower. He is balanced between earth and air transmitting the earthbound schlock of “soaps or ads or dating games or news” through the air and “his wavelengths, like the days he works in / are short and do not bend.” And finally there is “The Radiolarian Atlas” devoted to Haeckel’s research on plankton. Here the emphasis is on the miraculous creatures whose complex shapes not only evoke metaphors (“galaxy and daisy, asteroid and carapace”) but also suggest there is a contiguity between the structures of the universe at all scales. However, it will come as no surprise, as the reader gets to know Oxley’s world better, that there is an emphasis on the “narrow shaft of light” inside the microscope and on the balance required to wade out into a sea “a blue so far-flung and fantastical / that fish might swim in sea or sky” to collect the creatures in a net:

The water is cold, but not as cold
as it was yesterday, and it is rising.
White water thumps at your knees and thighs,
pushes at your pubis, navel and breast,
foams at your throat. Remain on the seabed.
It is the floor of truth.

Straight lines and curves are the subject of a fascinating poem, “Beelines”. This turns out, on some inspection, to be a single-sentenced, impeccably rhymed Petrarchan sonnet and it’s tempting to read a mimetic purpose behind that fact since a single sentence is a straight line and a complex rhyming scheme is a series of repetitions which, I suppose, makes some sort of circle. And the poem is about the straight line that the bee makes on its approach to the blossom (the source of the cliché “to make a beeline”) contrasted with the circular dances it makes to provide information and the macro-fact that spring, when all this is going on, is a result of the turning of the earth:

So this is the noise earth makes, turning again;
this fine-tuned, coming-in-to-land, abdomen down
heading into blossom, threads of drowsy sound
shuttling towards and away in almost-unison,
each steady furred excursion into talc-scented pollen
ending in intimate probe and suck, the pointed black
legs that brush past and steal, but only to give back
something new, something known yet wanted, the swollen
certainty of honey, even as under them petals fall
and earth spins into its small
yearly miracle outside our bathroom window,
the tree hovering once more and blown
with whiteness, as if a cloud had come
to settle there, and begun to hum.

Finally, in this catalogue of straight lines and rises, descents and balances, there is “Walking to Witch’s Leap” which might well be my favourite poem from this book – though there are plenty of contenders. It is a forty line, single sentence poem that enacts the notion of falling that it is so obsessively about:

                              because down is where it goes,
on earth anyway, streams to the sea or underground,
leaf and seed to earth and earth to leaf and the seed
the currawong bounds for with his heavy grace,
his cadenced elbowing bound; even cadence
once meant fall . . .

This lovely hymn to entropy is strung between a first line which uses the word “upended” and a final line which finishes with “end up”.

As I’ve said, the great quality in Oxley’s poetry is continually to find ways of respecting the natural world – in all its incomprehensible alienness (well catalogued in the poem about the radiolaria) – while, at the same time, finding ways to speak personally. It is a matter of balance where what I have called an expressionist poetry – where intensity of emotion distorts all perceptions of the natural world which are used as correlatives – is only at one end of the scale. Almost every one of her poems seems to face up to this problem and to attempt a unique solution. You have the general initial impression that the dominant emotional state which seeks expression is one of disappointment and loss. “Things to tell you: day 193” is one of these, almost morbidly built around absence. And “Phase” is about handing in divorce papers one day short of what would have been a twenty-year marriage. One poem which cleverly balances the natural world and the inner is “Waiting with birds: three lessons” where, again, the lessons of the birds – in sequence, according to my reading of the poem: “go about your ordinary life”, “don’t fantasize, look to yourself” and “live in the present” – are a way of dealing with a mind-numbing sense of emptiness.

But absence and emptiness are not the only sources of these poems. There are plenty which rise out of plenitude. “Border Country”, which concludes the book, is a sequence of poems about happy love in Wales and contains a fine sestina and a sonnet. Perhaps this is a nod to the Welsh poetic tradition which encourages a high level of poetic formalism or perhaps poems arising from happiness need tight forms to control them. And “Horsetails” is a really lovely poem that should be enlisted in the slim notional volume of great Australian love poems. It starts with a long, oblique, ten line description of a horse in a paddock and of horsetails in the sky before modulating to a poem of happy, physical love before concluding:

Soon, you say, our window will be white with plum-blossom
and you talk of the coming again of our first season
and the hen-run you will build under the apple trees.
But I am already embracing your word,
riding horsetails over the Sweetwater Hills, galloping upwards
on the inadvertent joyful possessive adjective our.

On balance, despite the loveliness of poems like this, I think absence is the more powerful generative state in Oxley’s poetry. Perhaps this is the case throughout the corpus of the world’s poetry since it reminds us of the processes of inevitable entropy and, perhaps, absences induce poems to fulfil them more easily than happinesses induce poems to express them. It will be interesting to see what happens in Oxley’s poetic world of the future, but I am very confident that there will be not one but a series of solutions and that they will be sure-footed, balanced, buoyant, intelligent.