Judith Beveridge: Storm and Honey

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2009, 89pp.

This is the fourth book by one of Australia’s most loved and admired contemporary poets. By this stage we should have fairly confident ideas about the shape of her poetic genius, but I have always found that Beveridge’s poetry as a whole constantly remains a step or two ahead of me. Critically, there is nothing especially worrying about this but it is a reminder that sometimes knowing a writer’s first books gives one no ability to predict anything in the current one. And yet, reading the new book, one can see that it fits organically with the earlier ones – it is not a matter of a sudden shift in aesthetic theory or practice. Each new Beveridge book has sent me back to the earlier ones looking for poems that didn’t seem important on first reading but which now click into focus.

Storm and Honey is almost entirely about the sea. It is made up of a thirty poem sequence, “Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman”, and a little collection of a dozen discrete poems, “Water Sapphire”. There are connections everywhere with earlier books. Firstly Beveridge has always seemed to want to move into sequences: in Accidental Grace there are a set of Indian portraits and, more tellingly, a Buddha sequence. In Wolf Notes there is an extended (and extremely elusive) sequence, “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree”. Here, the “Driftgrounds” sequence is structured so that three different personalities (Grennan, Davey and the narrator) can be bounced around in dramatic conflicts. Each has a mystical component. Grennan is a kind of old man of the sea with a history and, often, surprisingly idiosyncratic values; Davey is wrapped up in the mystique of the way he approaches the world – neatly symbolised in “The Cast” by his obsession with his fishing reel:

is still turning over his reel, clicking it, calibrating,
counting as though he were sure he could crack that pack

of digits, or break into the structure of brute matter itself.

The narrator is a rather dreamier figure – less of a professional than the other two but perhaps possessed of a valuable ability to float on the surface of reality.

Although it begins with a shock when a child’s body is discovered in a shark, this is not a sequence built around narrative drive. Nothing that much happens. People fish and there is space in the structure for some portraits of other characters. In the same way that “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” seemed a sequence length extension of the Buddha Cycle in Accidental Grace, so “Driftgrounds” seems an extension of all those fishing poems in the earlier books. And we have to ask what the significance of the sea is in Beveridge’s poetry. Wrestling with this, there seem at least two, reasonably exclusive possibilities. It could be that it is the ground of the poet’s being as the harbour was for Slessor, the Manly beaches for Beaver and the Hawkesbury for Robert Adamson – the primal landscape always returned to. Or it could be that it is nothing more than a conveniently reduced and thus manageable symbol of a Buddhist perception of the motions and interactions of the entire cosmos, of “brute matter itself”.

There is some poetic evidence for the former in that the poems deploy a bewildering range of words from the arcane reaches of English vocabulary which, in their harsh consonantalism (always a strength of English) create a sense of extreme tactility. The very first poem begins with a line that stresses hearing and exploits strong alliteration – “We heard the creaking clutch of the crank” – and the sequence is drenched with words like “whidders”, “brattle”, “chitter”, “flacker” (the noise of ducks taking off), “roils”, “moshing”, “katabatic” and so on. We aren’t that far from Seamus Heaney here or Lowell’s “brackish reach of shoal off Madaket”. There’s no doubt that one of the drives behind these poems is realism through tactility and why be tactile and realistic if the subject is no more than an allegorical setting? The highly tactile, aggressively consonantal, becomes the theme of one of the poems of the sequence, “Hooks”. The narrator, responding to the functional beauty of the varieties of fishing hooks – the width of the mouth, the offset of the point – comes up with various imaginative names for them: “wild-beaked bait-giver”, “ibis leaning / over the shallows” and “greenshanks / in flight”. They are poetic in the oriental mode:

                    I know Grennan and Davey
would think I’m silly naming these old hooks, but what

else is there to do when you’re stuck in a boathouse, no fish
          running, when the hooks’ real names -
Sproat, Sneck, Big Bend, Model 20R – are just not poetry.

Perhaps not, but this beautifully contrasts Asian with Germanic aesthetics and “sproat” and “sneck” have the quality that animates the poems of the whole sequence.

Two earlier poems from Accidental Grace are brought into focus by this sequence. In “The Fishermen” there is a strong sense of the sea and the crafts that it encourages as symbolic of the universe itself, a place of shifting threads, sometimes forming knots and nets, sometimes connected to individuals by lines rather as the girl of another early poem “Girl on a Rooftop Flying a Kite” is connected to the sky by a line. And the fishing lines of “The Fishermen” are complicated because although they are straight lines (and thus symbolically opposed to the lace and net patterns of woven lines) this does not mean that the fishermen are in a kind of exploiter/exploited relationship to the sea. The poem ends, memorably, with a surprise visitation:

They have always reminded me
of lace-makers. The way they stand
at the shore, looking at the sea
as if it is an open page of knots,
never a closed fabric stitched
by needles. And the way they stand
as if darning a yacht, a bird,
distant waves breaking in circles,
the passages the moon takes out
through the cliffs.
In their baskets
are things found in the hands
of needleworkers, haberdashers.
And see how they sit in the garnet
dusk, running threads into eyelets -
then bringing them back
and exposing an intimate dark.
And how they love the moon
in a scandalous design – as if
they were assured that the night
would not end without rapture
or the meridians to paradise.
. . . . .
In a chivalry
of lines they listen to the sea,
to the shells, to their reels click
in an amethyst quiet; to Odysseus
step out of the water shawled
in their sunstone-coloured nets,
his hand on his heart in a gesture
of disclosure, only the moon now
offering them sight over the waves,
as they too lift their arms into the sky.

I have quoted this poem at length not only because it is a wonderful poem and lays down so much of the important background for these later poems, but also to demonstrate that, although it seems the kind of thing which is the germ of “Driftgrounds”, it is different in that it prefers the rhapsodic to the aggressively tactile. There is another poem from Accidental Grace, “To the Islands”, which is about movement into another imaginative space. This movement is triggered by the sounds of the sea:

I will use the sound of wind and the splash
     of the cormorant diving and the music
any boatman will hear in the running threads
     as they sing about leaving for the Islands.

I will use a sinker’s zinc arpeggio as it
     rolls across a wooden jetty and the sound
of crabs in the shifting gravel and the scrape
     of awls across the hulls of yachts.

I will use the wash-board chorus of the sea
     and the boats and the skiffler’s skirl
of tide-steered surf taken out by the wind
     through the cliffs. . . . . .

I don’t think there is anything quite so explicit in “Driftgrounds”, but reading this poem in conjunction with the sequence makes one think of all these various poems about the sea, about fishing and fishermen, as inhabiting a kind of pre-departure ground. One of the characteristic moves of Beveridge’s poetry is into another imagined space and, as I’ve said of “The Fishermen”, the line connecting the individual to the sea is one of the means of departure. On this subject, it is worth dwelling for a moment about the way the works of other poets enter Beveridge’s poems. They are always italicised and acknowledged in notes and they seem stepping off points. And, of course, the quotations themselves are lines (of poetry rather than monofilament) and one has the impression that the complicated issue of influence is, in Beveridge’s poetry, no more than a momentary gift of an entry into a new world which will be the poem she is writing.

What evidence is there for seeing the sea as a symbol for the interactive universe? It is important to note a phenomenon here which, poetically, is as powerful as the tactile language. These poems are inclined to exploit simile, sometimes to the point of comic exaggeration. Take the opening of “Spittle Beach”:

     It’s cold among the siftings of shell and sand;
the rain falling slantwise out at sea. I walk among the pylons,
     fish scales are stuck to the wood like grey sleet.
               Far off, a yacht ”“

          its spinnaker filled with the wind looks as bulbous
as the vocal sac of a bell toad or a bullfrog. Along the shore
     weed, and the blunt white shells of cuttlefish;
               jellyfish like smeared

          globs of glyceride. An octopus, its head like a perfume
bottle’s puffer, has just squirted a whift of ink, tentacles
     curl in the air like baby fingers while the man hauls it in.
               Yesterday there was a shoal

     of fish turning through the current like a mirror ball,
or like . . . .

and so on, like upon like. And these similes are often genuinely metaphoric in that the connection they make is with something utterly alien to the world being described – the puffer of a perfume bottle, for example. What is the idea of reality that lies behind this? Does it come from a sense of process which undermines our inclination to see things as carefully outlined individual entities? Although it is far beyond my metaphysical capabilities, it has always been an issue for readers of the poetry of Robert Gray who has an openly Buddhist conception of reality behind his poems. And so it is no surprise that the most densely “similied” poem – so dense that you feel at times that it must be a private joke – “The Harbour”, the opening poem of the “Water Sapphire” set of poems, is dedicated to Gray. It reads like a parody of the drive for precision by simile:

Out on the harbour yachts are clustered like little wedges
of hard white cheese stuck with toothpick-thin masts.
The moon is a cocktail onion, or just plain soda cracker,
but the sun is a dollop of hot chilli relish floating above

the vol-au-vent shape of Fort Denison. At Cremorne Point
a lighthouse gleams like a salt cellar. Out between the Heads
those white spinnakers are as tautly bellied as garlic cloves.
. . . . .

And – as before – so on and so on. But at the moment when we think we are reading a parody or a poetry class exercise (“Construct a series of similes for a poem entitled ”˜Sydney Harbour Conceived as a Dining Table’”) the poem shifts into a loving celebration of Gray’s “Late Ferry”:

                                        I’m watching all this from a balcony
just as the wind gets up, just as I’m remembering your poem,
Robert, about the late ferry crossing the water – and as
the light spills intemperately and wantonly as honey.

It is very beautiful, the way in which the symbol of transcendence (or, if that is too metaphysically loaded a word, plenitude) should also be a food.

So the poetic methods of these poems employ what I have always thought of as opposed principles: the tactile, consonantal language emphasises the gritty thinginess of things and the high content of similes opens things out into larger patterns, stressing not individuality but connection. So finally I am not sure whether Sydney’s coast here is a ground of being or a symbol of the connections of the universe.

There is a third possibility about the book’s conception of the sea: it may symbolise not existence but poetry. Any poetry focussing on the making of nets and the casting of baited hooks into the sea looks as though it wants to be read in this way. It may be an easy option – it is often easy to read difficult poems as allegories of artistic creation – but when Davey in “The Point” rows his boat through a shoal of similes and comments that he is “just going on my nerve”, most of us are going to think of Frank O’Hara’s famous manifesto. At one stage I even wanted to push the analogy to the point where the three protagonists represent different approaches to writing poetry or even, more intriguingly at the level of gossip, three actual poets. But that way madness probably lies. At any rate, the poem after “The Point”, “Grennan Mending Nets”, does seem to invite this kind of symbolic connection between making poems and knotting nets:

So good to just let fish and weather turn his head, to sit and work
taking thread from warp to weft; to listen to the sea pull in and out
without a thought for tarry or departure, even for what the boats

have caught, long nets dragging from the bowsprits, wakes trawling
through the river’s inwrought gold. His fingers work the mesh,
the open weave twisting until it seems the sea itself is locked.

. . . . .

                                                            Already the light has pulled away

from the oars of boats we may never see again, and though his
hands hold weight he likes to let his mind drift, then let it find its
place like a cut and finished thread at the back of the tatted shore.

I wrote earlier of Beveridge’s love of the movement out from one reality into an imagined one and the way lines of poetry can be the tickets that enable this. This is an area that someone looking at her work so far as a whole would want to focus on. My sense – with precious little to support it – is that the world entered remains an imagined rather than, say, researched, one. It might be not so much the experience of an alien reality (the sort of thing we aim for when we learn the language of the place we are visiting and thus try to be something better than mere tourists who might as well have stayed at home and watched Discovery channel) as a metaphoric extension of the poet’s own reality. This becomes important when considering the wonderful “Appaloosa” from “Water Sapphire”. As other Beveridge poems, it includes an epigraph from another writer (“I have always loved the word guitar” – David St. John) so that the world of horses which the poem is going to enter is made available by quoting a line in which another writer enters the world of music. And the poem’s syntax is a matter of continual denials of the equestrian world:

I have never been bumped in a saddle as a horse springs
     from one diagonal to another,
          a two-beat gait light and balanced
as the four-beats per stride become the hair-blowing,
   wind-in-the-face, grass-rippling,
     muscle-loosening, forward-leaning
   exhilaration of the gallop.
. . . . .

while the intensity of the language affirms the reality of the experience. And the poem concludes with the statement that the means of entry into that world is the love of the word “appaloosa”, itself a kind of North American linguistic equivalent to the “whidderings”, “chitterlings” and “brattles” of the sea poems.

Finally there are the worlds that can’t be entered. William James famously said of the octopus: “such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy” and in the final poem of Storm and Honey, “The Aquarium”, we get to look, through glass, at a row of these impenetrable otherworlds. And, though James is nowhere invoked, it seems right that the star of the show is the octopus. It represents a challenge not only for the individual poet but for poetic language itself. Luxuriating “in its own arms” it looks as though it were trying to write – a kind of mirror of the watching poet – and the words it seems to want to write – lollygag, lollipop, lollapalooza – recall the word “appaloosa” of the earlier poem. When she returns to the octopus she sees it enact one of those freak transformations using a ring in the tank:

          and in a flash
     as though it were a length of voile or Dacca silk, it draws
all four metres of itself through the ring’s small hole
               shape-shifting then tightening
          its small face against the glass before it holds the rim
     of the ring again, and it draws itself back through
               as if into another portal, another hole in space.

Storm and Honey is quite a book, full of remarkable pleasures and more than justifying its author’s status as one of Australia’s most important writers. Of course, as the sensitive reader will see, it is not a book that I feel thoroughly “on top of” (always an inappropriate metaphor for criticism – it should be replaced by “lost happily inside”!). Beveridge is one of those poets whose body of work grows in complexity as she goes on. But one important feature is worth concluding with: you never get the impression that Beveridge is a comfortable exploiter of the sea as useful material for a set of poems. She sets herself the challenge – as the upper echelons of poets do – of making each poem a unique and momentarily flashing structure – not unlike the forms that the sea throws up. It is the opposite of that rhetorical approach which masters a proven method, finds an amenable subject and then works it over. But it means that almost all the poems of this book respond to a sensitive probing of their conception and structure and provide enormous readerly pleasure in the process.