Sarah Day: Grass Notes

Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2009, 73pp.

Sarah Day is a fascinating poet whose work deserves to be more widely praised. She is also a really uneven poet, capable of following a stunning second book (A Madder Dance, 1991) by a really weak third one (Quickening, 1997) and this (to me) undeniable fact has coloured my responses to the two books which have followed: The Ship (2004) and now this new book, Grass Notes. Instead of trying to work out what underlies the poems and whether this has changed as the years have gone on – my usual initial questions of a substantial body of poetry – I find myself asking, in Day’s case, why some of these poems excite me so much while others seem, at best, ordinary. It is actually hard to believe that the poet who wrote the first four poems of A Madder Dance is the same poet who wrote the first four poems of Quickening. The best I can do is to propose the idea that she is a poet who, at the deepest level, responds to the frameworks by which we deal with experience, rather than the experiences themselves or their meanings: she is – and I’m nervous here about being reductive or Procrustean – a poet of perspective.

This (at best) generalised suspicion certainly makes some sense, in retrospect, of her first book, A Hunger to be Less Serious (1987), a good but in no way remarkable debut collection. It has four sections and the opening one is a group of portraits. Nestled in here is the book’s title poem which might well have appeared in the second section and is only a portrait in the sense of resulting from observing a group. Here a row of cars waits for a bridge to swing open and a barge to pass along the canal: it’s the European equivalent of waiting at the rail crossing for the train to pass. For a moment the drivers and car passengers are allowed out of their regimented and mechanised existences and flock to the side of the canal to watch the passing of the barge (and its attached dinghy), a symbol of a flightier, less “serious” mode of existence:

When she comes into view, the tub meets all expectations:
an old canoe-stern, trailing her fledgling nose-up in the wake,
sailing sublimely past the crowd and the procession of deserted vehicles,

away, away into the horizon,
carrying on board a gleaming catch
of strayed dreams and wish-fulfilments.

This is one of those poems of dichotomy of which the book’s second section is full. It is something poetry, with its powers of compression and suggestion, does better than prose but it is a familiar mode and one in which it is difficult to spring any surprises. Before I leave these portraits, though, I should mention “Voices from Ti-tree”, not because it is especially successful but for its relevance to the later poetry. It is three (rather than two) monologues delivered by orphaned sisters: the first keeps the house together, removes the scrap, kills the hens and keeps the pot full; the second gardens by burying waste to enrich the soil and the third collects detritus from the shore, ostensibly to help the other two but really to revel in the beauty of the chips of porcelain she finds. I’m not sure about the first sister but the other two clearly symbolise methods of creation: alchemical transformation of scrap and the collecting and arranging and meditating on detritus ripped out of its context. The image of a person collecting from the shore fragments of the lives of others and trying to make sense of them (which is, I suppose, trying to find a perspective from which they can be read) is an image that appears in a number of Day’s later poems.

This is a three-part allegory but in the book’s second section we are in the world of posed, symbolic binaries. Two brothers who are fishermen respond to either the calm water inside the bar or the wilder water beyond it. “Fountain and Bell” contrasts the perspective of the bell tower which can see “the village neat; / fields and farms are mere pattern” with that of the fountain which watches the women immersed in their domestic lives of laundry. Most important of these is “Anemones” which contrasts two approaches to the beach (and thus, to experience). The male, when a little boy, observed the goings on in rock pools whereas the I-figure was a lot more engaged:

It occurred to me today, the difference,
yours and mine, out there among the rockpools
on the beach.

Even now you hang back,
loath to touch the fleshy female forms
recoiling from the plump translucent lips

of scarlet sea creatures – phantom lives
which float unanchored and without direction
beneath the glassy surface.

Oblivious to sound and touch and smell you only see
and only what you want to see.
A little boy you knelt for hours on end

beside the smooth shallows,
absorbed by tiny patterns, subtle shadows,
species only patience will reward.

I could not wait, I liked to see things move,
to hold them in my hand, to feel a hundred
tickling legs wriggling through finger spaces.

It gave you the willies the way I’d poke inside
the magic sequined rings of broken shale and shell
to feel the life inside respond and hold.

On the surface this seems to oppose a fastidious desire merely to observe life (with the use of a single sense) with a passionate desire to immerse oneself in life using all the senses. There is also a suggestion of a kind of pre-adolescent sexual disgust in the former. But it is worth noting, in the light of the poems which are to come, that this is also the opposing of perspective against immediate experience. If I am right in believing that Day’s poetry is at its best and fullest when it engages the former, there is a certain irony in this early poem’s positioning of the narrator so that the latter seems to be the approach approved of. Perhaps “Anemones” is balanced by a poem from the final section of A Hunger to be Less Serious, “Hawk”. Here the binary is the hawk’s view of the world with the hare’s. For the former it is a matter of “the higher / I soar / the better / I see”; for the latter, experience is a matter of what a later poem calls “immersion in substance” for the hare “sits up / and sees / the whole world / move with one wave – / green”. Interestingly we are not given any clues about which of these perspectives is approved. Perhaps the whole natural world is beyond human preferences but though my claws might be stained in blood I think that, in general, I’d rather be a hawk than a hare!

Though A Hunger to be Less Serious might have prepared prescient readers for the general direction of the poems of A Madder Dance, it is the quality of this second book which is a surprise. As with the first book, it begins with portraits. The first is of a pilot, a man used to hawk and bell-tower perspectives, entering the upper floors of a hotel. It has a wonderful, complex conclusion that is far beyond those of the earlier poems:

To swoop down, re-enter where the miniature looms
large as skyscrapers, is to step backwards

each time, to enter the unstructured humdrum
of the atom. Give him beauty, order and the balm

of those who are also located in arrival, departure,
flux, for whom I will be gone soon are the words

most easy to find. Those ahead of their selves,
whose souls, travelling overland on foot

and many times overtaken, have given up the search,
taking a spiral route of their own choosing.

This is a long way from “the higher / I soar / the better / I see” since it relates perspective to immediacy in a way that echoes through later poems – even though I’m not absolutely sure of the meaning of the last lines. At any rate the “spiral route of their own choosing” is code for an immersion in experience that processes experience in a different way and it recurs in the second poem, a monologue delivered by someone in the electric chair. He says, predictably enough, “It is hard to see the pattern / when you are the lines that construct / or the lemniscate you are riding” but the poem’s last lines recall the image of the spiral in the first poem:

People are the evidence that of time,
distance, order is born
though in stepping back to view
the choreography, a foot may whirl
into the gyre of a madder dance.

These two complex poems are intriguing and successful but they are a little stagey and Day may have felt that they are too “philosophical” in that, despite their settings, their true fabric is one of undiluted (and rather instructional) meditation. This problem is solved by one of the best of the poems in the book, “Goldstein’s Drapery”. Set in a fabric shop it points out how the stacks of material become a kind compressed history of fashion as though they were archeological strata. They provide, in other words, a removed perspective from which fashion (and life) can be understood but they are contrasted with the shop’s owner who lives immersed in the moment and has “the sense within her of the new / coming on to the new coming on to the new”. A similar idea is restated in “Oblivious Among the Dust” which is, perhaps, not as interesting a poem as “Goldstein’s Drapery” but which I have always remembered for its wonderful line, “Things change. Those straight slacks my mother wore . . .” in which one of philosophy’s great propositions is welded to a thoroughly homely example proving, if proof were needed, that the most powerful effects in discourse are achieved by radical modulations between “high” and “low” levels.

Finally, in this revisiting of A Madder Dance, there is “Handles to the Invisible”. It too is concerned with perspective and begins with a gesture which is distinctive to Day’s style. A couple wander around a beach looking for “detail” and their wanderings are imagined to be plotted on a map – in other words seen from a very removed perspective. At any rate, the details that the characters collect are fragments of pottery and glass which have been abraded by the sea to the point where their totality has been compromised and their context removed. They are, the poem says, “handles to the invisible, / ornate illusions [surely “allusions” is intended though this spelling is repeated in a Selected Poems] to the untold or half-told . . .” and it is hard to know whether the poem is delighted more by the notion that huge and independent worlds lie behind these fragments or by the celebration of the homely, broken survivors and their challenge to a poet to recreate the larger whole.

The Ship combines two main thematic drives. There is the sense that, if you alter perspective, you can see a hidden world, behind the surface world. And this world is usually a menacing one. The book prepares us for this when it begins with a poem, “Underneath the City”, set in the subterranean world of sewers from which “subterranean missives” are sent to the upper world. Another poem expands this by describing a town built on abandoned mines so that the messages sent are specifically a reminder that present comfort is predicated on past exploitation. “Menace” describes the sense of menace which lies “behind the scenes / of urban seeming” and “High fire Danger” focuses on the way that a future apocalypse might be figured in a day of bushfires which are themselves announced by strange alterations in visual perspectives. These, as do many of the poems in the book, show themselves sensitive to a many-layered quality in the world where alternate worlds are aligned alongside, behind or underneath the ordinary. It is the reason for a poem the exact implications of which, if we encountered it on its own without the context of Day’s approach to things, might escape us. “Out of the Dark” moves from simple rural family experience to ask an important question:

As the smell of autumn rose from the ground,
like mushrooms and the evening valley exhaled

its cold oak-leaf breath over the thin layer of daytime air;
and the bonfire exhausted itself along with the excitement

of children, now withdrawing, the herd of Friesians
must have approached, stealthy as the encroaching night,

curious as cows can be, drawn by the glow
or the mood of contemplation around the diminishing fire.

Who knows how, when you are gazing inwards at an ember,
a circle of great-faced beasts can materialise

at one’s shoulder out of the dark periphery?

True, the word “inwards” carries a lot of weight here and it is possible to read the poem more as a description of an invocation of a greater world rather than the perception that such a world exists, hidden, beneath or behind the usual social one and can be seen by a readjustment of one’s vision, but the impulse behind the poem is the same.

The second theme of The Ship is signalled in its title and recalls the first poem of A Madder Dance. We are in the world of departures here, of “embarking, disembarking”. But the journeying ship, train or car is also a mobile world, a present which moves through time and space, moving its perspective as it does so. The QE2 “slips downriver / illuminating a continuous present” in much the same way as the poet’s child, carried in a shopping trolley or in the back of a car, in the book’s last poem, is a point of view exposed continually to the mundane. “Cruise Ship” is built around the issue of what the view would be like from different positions and “Easter Train” – a kind of revisiting of “A Hunger to be Less Serious” in which the barge is substituted by a train – moves its point of view to be that of the celebrating journeyers rather than the spectators. There are many other poems which operate out of this group of concerns and methods. “From the Flight Path” for example concludes with Day’s characteristic gesture of mapping movement (that is, seeing it from an enormously remote perspective), “Seven miles up, / the crowded corridors / of the great circle routes / encircle us like planet rings” but most interesting is the title poem. Here we revisit the experience of being a migrant child travelling to Australia by boat from England (an experience I share with Sarah Day, though mine occurred rather earlier). It is a multipart poem (which nowadays always raises the suspicion that it was written with a competition in mind) but it rather beautifully combines both the themes I have outlined. It is very sensitive, for example, to other worlds, or, perhaps I should say, other versions of our world. She knows that the ship travels powered by “a Dantean underworld / of underpaid labour” and devotes a whole poem to a shipboard conjuror who can convince children that eggs can emerge from his mouth. But over and above this is the interest in perspective: one’s home becomes a pencil line seen from the back of a departing boat and, most interestingly, the perspective of time alters the entire experience into a metaphor:

Of the ship, memory makes a metaphor
with the passage of time,
its broad staircases and mint-green lino,
the portholed vision through a pristine hull
of ever-changing ocean, are the means
by which a new life is superimposed on the old.

And so (after this long introduction, fuelled by a desire to, in some way, get to grips with a poetry I have admired since I first read A Madder Dance) to Grass Notes. It is another fine book, working its way through and within its obsessions. In one of its poems, the idea of riding on a donkey’s back or in a ship (both images from “The Ship”) is transposed into the whimsical mode whereby the narrator is an ancient Roman being carried in a litter. This method of transport provides an “elevated view of things” but of course depends on an underworld:

                       Up here, the view

above the lice-infested heads
of those who clothe us, bake our bread,
might ripple under scrutiny
of carpers in a century

who fail to feel the roll and sway
of their own Rome in its heyday.

In other words, in ancient Rome compared with the present, as John Forbes said in a different context, “the machinery of capital’s more obvious”. The book’s title sequence deals with relationships between white settlers and indigenous inhabitants, a theme that seems more difficult to suppress and drive underground in Tasmania than on the mainland. Its poems ask a number of questions: what were the first indications? What did the artist of “View on the River Derwent” see or “not own to seeing”? How do the dead white gentlefolk sleep in their graves? And how could human beings deploy something as brutal as a mantrap (a kind of “oversize rabbit snare”)? The final poem of the group investigates the nest of a silvereye seeing in its sheep’s wool, human hair, horsetail hair, coloured thread from a washing line and the grass that makes a structural background, a kind of miniature artistic embodiment of colonial history. It’s a wonderful idea – a matter of perspective.

Again, as in the earlier books, there is a focus in these poems on the idea of the present and the immersion in this present. “Present Time” is a homely though complex little poem in which two people, positioned on ladders pruning apple and pear trees, look at each other:

Time never seems less linear
than when you are up a ladder
leaning on a winter’s sky,
selecting new wood from last season’s spurs
on the apples and pears.
Perhaps because hands have been working
to this same end through millennia
or perhaps the yearly repetition
of a simple task on brilliant days
such as today, when every tree bud and skin pore
is vivid as if viewed through magnifying glass,
this and all past years’ prunings
become simultaneous, so that time makes anathema
of the calendar and its meaningless numbers.
And I look up through pear wood to your face
squinting against a cold sun
and down to my feet at the strewn saplings,
the present moment saturates all given form
with past and future.

As I read it, looking into the partner’s face is not a matter of an experience “out of time” but one intense enough to focus all the elements of what is a regularly repeated experience. Thus all past lovers, pruners, growers, apple-eaters, celebrators of new growth, etc, lead to a single moment. It’s a variant of that peculiar perspective where we can think of ourselves and our current situation as something that the entire history of the universe has prepared for (as Hegel felt when he saw Napoleon entering Jena). A related poem, “Finding North” (its title significantly raising the issue of bearings), is a poem about a woman towing a small boy in a small boat, but its interest is in how this moment in the present relates to larger issues:

What does an elderly woman
towing a child, a small boy,
in an inflatable boat,
through shallow water
tell me about history?
. . . . .

is its opening gambit. And the poem goes on to imagine wider, cosmic perspectives that can say nothing about this image, concluding with the reality of the couple moving “as if in a spell / cast by the continuous present”. (I like the little grammatical joke in those last words – but that probably says more about me than the poem.) At any rate it supports my general view of this poetry – that for Day meditation on perspective is more poetically productive than engagement with immersion – by providing us with a memorable (though unexplorable) image. “Immersion” and “perspective” are both abstract nouns, but in Day’s poetry the latter serves so much better as a base for exploration than the former.

The book begins with a poem, “The Observatory”, which is about perspective and dimensions. Here the cosmic is allowed to penetrate the earth-sized, though this may only be at a metaphoric level:

The rattle of wind in sclerophyll
is the murmur of cosmic dust
and particle shift. With each break
in the clouds the queue shuffles
a patient step forward.
Beyond the observatory’s dim glow
bush is black as dark matter tonight;
the distant river is negative space, 
and the city on the other side
a scattered galaxy.
. . . . .

And the third poem, “Apples”, exploits Day’s neat connection of the humble with the macro by celebrating a fruit that has “weathered / the rise and fall of civilisations” to end up on an ordinary plate for our pleasure.

Some of the poems remind us that altering perspective is a technique for preventing poems sagging under the weight of their own subjects. A long poem devoted to lugging the heavy, dead body of a wombat off the road so that it can rot in a more dignified way (an activity which, by the way, recalls that of the second sister in the poem, “Voices from Ti-tree” in A Hunger to be Less Serious) has a surprise conclusion where the process of decay is mapped (in that movement Day’s mind often makes) as making a body recede “into two dimensions”. And a monologue from a funeral director’s point of view concludes, surprisingly with a withdrawal from assertiveness:

Empathy and imagination 
are what I bring
to the job. Humility
is what the job brings to me – 

in the calm or trepidation
of your warm hand.

And the book finishes with more poems about death, there the deaths of strangers and émigrés. Death is a theme that appears in the later poems of The Ship, especially in “for JMR” where even the approach of death is seen as a matter of point of view and the author wants to ask – with that insistent interest in perspective – “how it all looked / from that distance”.