Caroline Caddy: Burning Bright

Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010, 104pp.

Caroline Caddy is a fine poet whose ninth book, Burning Bright, marks thirty years of publishing. I’m chastened to say that in my first draft of that sentence I wrote, almost instinctively, “a fine Western Australian poet”, as though she somehow belonged only to the poetic traditions of that vast, far western state rather than to Australian poetry as a whole. But the slip really points up how profoundly regional a poet she seems. Of course this may be an illusion: she may be no more “regional” than any poet who is locked into his or her immediate environment and it may simply be the comparative exoticism of this environment (to the eyes of those in Eastern states) that makes it seem a highlight of her poetry. To someone who had never seen Sydney, John Tranter might seem exotically regional.

At any rate, theoretical issues aside, Caddy as poet and person is locked into the south western corner of Western Australia and the first part of this new book has poems about her experience of that environment whereas the second half is devoted to poems that arise from buying land and turning it into a working olive farm. But there are also a group of a dozen poems documenting travel in China, and not just Beijing – she gets as far west as Urumqi in Xinjiang, a really long way. Superficially it is a paradox that a poet who is so much of her precise location in Western Australia is also one of Australia’s great poets of travel, with a whole book devoted to Antarctica to her credit and regular poems of travel into the “far East”. I won’t be the first person to say this, but it is the interaction of these two experiences that make her such a rewarding, and increasingly rewarding, poet to read.

The first, and most obvious thing, to say about travel is that it doesn’t, of itself, make anybody a better person or make them a better writer because they have a better-stocked inner life. Extended exposure to the “other” or to exotic experience may make the self richer but it doesn’t necessarily change it. Very stupid and very bigoted people have often travelled widely, each experience of the exotic being processed so that it confirms an existing cast of mind. One of the best things I have ever read about travel is one of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America. Called, cryptically, “The Hawk and the Gorilla”, it is dense, complex and allusive enough to be considered to be a poem in its own right. I won’t bore readers with a sermon about it but it begins with the statement: “They say that travel broadens the mind but what they don’t say is that sometimes the broader the mind, the thinner it gets”.

Caddy is a wonderful poet about the various effects of exotic experience. She always looks at these encounters with an analytical, almost professional eye. One of her books, Working Temple, quotes her, in the blurb, as speaking of “that other hinterland of living in a country where you don’t speak the language . . . these are poems of observation. I wanted to be able to watch what was going on without being told, without moving the impressions of the senses too quickly into words”. This, of itself, lays out a whole theory of travel so that we work by ignorance to divorce experience from language and thus re-establish the primacy of experience – a phenomenologist’s project. But individual poems explore other ways in which the self is modified when it interacts with something alien, when it is involved in the process (as one of the poems from Burning Bright says) of “getting to be someone else because we are somewhere else”. “Streetwise”, for example, from Working Temple, describes the way in which, in China, clothes-style hasn’t “settled yet / into dynasties” so that all kinds of contradictory western periods – “Sixties makeshift fifties waisted / twenties rolled hose / trippingly Victorian furbelowed . . .” – can appear simultaneously: a postmodernist’s paradise.

. . . . .
First-communion   mother-of-the-bride   punk
                                                       I like the affront
the feast of it
with everything so new   experimental
                                                         that anything
                                                                          is valid
where the shine of information
                                   doesn’t come off on you
                                                   when it’s handed over
but reflects the way it’s taken
                                  copyright
                                        pleasure of the wearer.

In “Translation” it is not so much an exoticism of style or behaviour but rather the incomprehensibility of a single object:

In the Hall of Musical Instruments
                                                 a stone gong
                                                             flat jade L
widened at its obtuse junction
                                          and utterly strange
                                                                     to my eyes.
In a world where we are learning
                                                that we share so much
I can hardly believe its shape
is familiar to these people
             that it doesn’t seem just unearthed but
                                                                        not of this earth
the science of alien life-forms
who use their physical environment
                                                        in so different a way
that our and their
                 explanation of the same fact
                                                       can’t be credited
by each other.
Opaque green
               a patina that could have come
                                                      from precise machining
or a million million hands.
I ask what it sounds like
                        and my friend reaches
                                                        then shakes her head.
Between us
in the cool   in the dim
                         on thick silk ropes
                                                         hangs a strange key
a beautiful
yoke.

I won’t be the only person who thinks, at this point, of the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (best-known for being the basis of Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and I quote it in full, not only because it is a wonderful and memorable poem but because it marks what seems like the extremity of alienness. The title is, on second thoughts, interestingly surprising as is the conclusion, whereby the object becomes simultaneously a key to the foreign (foreign far beyond the ”˜ordinary foreign’ of China) and something that binds the watcher.

So the “travel” component which appears in all of Caddy’s books is a potent one. But one wouldn’t want to feel that its counterpart – the regional, the poems of south-west Western Australia – is in some ways merely stable as though it were a static, iconic site that renews by contact. Caddy has a fine eye for process, for change and for the interactions between poet and environment. Her first book begins with a sequence about her farming ancestors. It is a movement towards understanding the self which is a fairly conventional one. But it is followed by an important poem, “Builder”, which worries over the connections between farming and poem-making, between words and stone:

There is an acreage I would like to own.
I go there to look
at the rocks and heaped windrows.

Walk through the farmers’ gate, twist of wire;
follow the tangled creek
spilling out to soft fans of mud and reeds
then gouging down again.

Too much clearing done here.
I imagine trees planted, hundreds,
the ripple and thrift of a dam.
I experiment,
one stone upon another.

My hands remember you, ancestor, builder.
How you knew these facts
are dreams, these dreams are facts;
the certain way they must be taken up
and handled.

It is a good thing to believe now
in the closeness of the word
and the stone.
Soon, we can begin.

There’s a lot going on here, not least of which is the planning of a parallel course as poem and farm-owner. Significantly, in Esperance (2007), which is a selected poems, this poem is moved from its position in Singing at Night so that it appears first and introduces the whole volume.

All of which is a long (though sketchy) introduction to this new book, Burning Bright. One should, probably, begin with the style since it is strikingly effective in the first ten poems of the book, those that deal with travels through the south-west. Essentially it is a matter of long, comma-less lines with spaces and steps: the opening of “Maringarup Pools” is a good example and one which will save me a lot of analytical description:

It’s there again    the lightly cupped water    the held water
                                                                                                       the pools
I know it’s more complicated
by the mud-maps   the tracks and gates
                                                      bits of rag tied to trees for direction
but every time I talk myself away    it’s there again
                                                     the skim of blue that could be sea . . .

It’s a style that appears in Caddy’s second book but it takes until her third, Beach Plastic (1989), for it to get going to the extent that she can exploit it. Twenty years later it seems the perfect mode for these poems about the landscape she inhabits. After all, its predominant feature, one which appears repeatedly, is its flatness and its shallowness. This simply isn’t suited to that lyric mode whereby the syntax of the poem falls through enjambed short lines to create its own, unique shape. That seems like the poem structured as a waterfall and this isn’t an environment where you would want to invoke waterfalls. The opening out of the syntax doesn’t, though, preclude the shapes of lyric that we find so satisfying because you can see in a poem like “The Commercial Hotel” the same cleverly dramatic closure. It begins with the openness and emptiness of a small town and then recounts a couple’s wandering out and then back before finishing:

Long after the generator was turned off
                                       and there was no more light
                                                      and the dark was a too warm blanket
and just as the pale stubble fields began to push
                                                                 lightly against the windows
we slept.

There are a lot of complicated things happening in this poem and, though they are things that we are used to in the lyric, they are done with an individual voice. It’s an empty environment where the existence of humans begins by defining it, especially by giving it some sort of scale but also – as human consciousnesses do – giving it a centre. But as the poem progresses the humans return to the increasingly domestic world of the hotel where “travellers lay arms legs outstretched / in rooms that smelled of beer” the natural world asserts itself so that at the end of the poem it is nature which is waking and the human which is sleeping. All this adds to a tense and dynamic structure to this poem and I have described it here to make the point that the “rolled-out”, flat, extended and spaced quality of Caddy’s style doesn’t preclude the pleasurable tensions and dramas that we associate with good lyrics.

These first poems are very sensitive also to the movements of the mind and the way it is related to the world. As in “Builder” there is a strong sense that one can and must build with words especially in an environment where, as one poem says, “I am blown on a millimetre wave of life / between towns inches deep”. In such a place “where life is thinly spread” everybody, including poets, must work. Two poems focus on irruptions into this strangely flat and shallow world. “Stirling Ranges” is about mountains whose precipitateness is deceptive in the flat surrounds and “Wheat Bins” deals with human constructions which sit weirdly in the landscape. It cleverly describes the odd sense of arriving – because the silos do not structure the landscape but sit on it, the approach is tricky and reflects the dominance of the scaleless landscape:

Such a big feeling to arrive in such a small place
                                                      realising not so much we’re here
                                                                                     but that it’s here
as we slow from the speed of the highway
                                                    shedding velocity
                                                                slipping into the turn-off
the choice to be made so quickly in the face of so little
we could easily say we missed it
                                       but even as we used those words
                                                                              feel ourselves doubting
knowing we’d sensed
                         gliding by the long wide Euclid something like
                                                                                                a mother ship.
. . . . .

It’s no accident that the wheat bins call up science-fiction imagery but, at last, the poem focuses on the way in which the slope of the sides of the bins is calculated to reflect exactly the slope of pyramid of free standing wheat. Inside the weird intervention in the landscape is a human dimension:

This is the constructed hold of our living
                                         that folded out   measured
                                                                               projected into the future
is a standing proof
and out here where the immense stricture of the land
                                                                     makes us smaller
                                                                                              is easier to read.

It’s as though Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” had gone on to think about the inner shape of the jar and how it embodied its potter’s individuality in traces of his thumbprints and the shape of his (and our) life in its curves. The unusual word “stricture” is well-chosen too, since it is a description of the land but is only one letter away from a description of the wheat bin. This passage also, while I am on the subject of Caddy’s lyric style, demonstrates in a weakness one of her strengths. It would be easy, in this style, for the syntax to dissolve into a kind of participial wash and it’s impressive that her poems remain syntactically tight. But the “that” of the second line is an irritant because we don’t know whether it is a demonstrative adjective or a relative pronoun: it is the latter and the ambiguity in English is usually solved by a comma after the “that”.

The thirteen poems which follow are set in China and don’t mark any great advance over such poems in earlier books although, if pressed, you might be able to say that they have a casualness of observation, a lack of traveller’s-earnestness that might be found in the other books. One of the poems, “Shangai Renga”, speaks in Whitmanian terms:

. . . . .
I haven’t done anything today
and probably won’t tomorrow
                                only this has slipped me into gear again
though it too is a kind of idle
the empty space that runs the universe
                                 the loafing that observes its own creation
its own extinguishment.
. . . . .

and it is this bland religious sense that emerges in these poems. A Confucian temple transmits nothing transcendent, nothing that demands “you must change your lives” but rather a heightened social sense that would have pleased the sage:

. . . .
and if our hands on the braille balustrades
                                                                 couldn’t tell the difference
between alabaster and cement
                                     there would still be a transmission a civilising
                                                                            not of palaces or tombs
but the adequate and charming bones of dwelling
                                              the few good actions the few good words
                                                                                                         that last
what you say to me what I say to you.

Intriguingly, the poem called “Religious Experience” describes the creation inside a hotel of a temporary cloth hoarding while refurbishments to the foyer are carried out. It is described in religious terms – ritual entering and exiting – and the result (“a renovated coffee lounge”) contains a “perpetually resurrected altar of cakes and libation”. But, as in almost all parodical descriptions, the mocked infiltrates the reader’s experience and makes its own statement. Thus at the end of “Religious Experience”, the humble, social dimension of such experience is re-asserted:

Together with the one cup one page readers
                                       and the low hands cupped bow
                                                                  of the lighter ups of cigarettes
I breathe the deep aroma and read my magazine
                                                      with a diligence to be aware
                                                                              as if it’s a grain of sand
while the blessed stamped and proven human chant resumes.

My favourite of these “Chinese” poems is “Riders Qing Hai” in which poet and partner, near a stupa by a frozen lake, are accosted by “youths on their sturdy ponies” who try to persuade them to ride. It is really a “landscape with humans” poem and you get a sense of the immense energy deriving from their opposition. The description of the landscape is brilliant: the stupa looks as though it is holding the edge of the lake down and at the end of the poem it seems as though it is the riders who have stopped the lake moving forward. When Caddy describes this lake and the way in which “everything else floats / the plains that sweep down from the mountains standing dust / flocks of sheep that run forward / like the rapids of silty rivers” you feel the same response to landscape that dominates the poems of south-west Western Australia. Though there are no horsemen of stupas there to hold the landscape down and back.

The final part of Burning Bright ”“ nearly half the book – is located in Australia and it begins with poems of possession, landtaking. Although the incredible press of humanity in China has gone, replaced by “the quiet and the dark”, there is, in these poems, a strong sense of the social. The poet’s neighbour, “Farmer Bob”, a man with his own preoccupations and own history, becomes important. He is the subject of a fine portrait poem, “Confederates”, which is held together structurally by American Civil War puns (“A Day in the Life” is also beautifully structured around “sand” and “castles”):

In Farmer Bob’s house there’s a picture of him
                                                  on a horse hat pulled down low
a pistol in one hand    flintlock in the other.
Banks government   politicians   as much as he has to say
he says against these.
Farmer Bob has two beautifully kept diesels
                                                                that generate his power
and could go on doing so forever
                                          as he replaces parts he makes himself
flat-bed drill and lathe bolted to the floor.
Farmer Bob has a wife who shines
                                                 a son he feels he is losing to the world
and a daughter whose dad can do anything.
In their company we are recruited
                                         into a union that keeps the statistics
                                                                                                    unreliable.
We warm our hands at his home-made barbecue
                                        chew his home-grown slabs of beef
that shrink a little and curl up at the edges.
Under the gaze of his sardonic eye
                                                    he knows we know
                                                                              it will be tough.

It’s a lovely, complex poem written with exquisite grace and tone. How much the American quality of the references is a dry comment about the way in which this self-sufficient life is an American dream (mediated through popular culture) rather than an Australian one, I am not sure. At any rate, there is nothing cosy or arcadian about this olive farm. The olives themselves, as they first appear, are described in terms of “the flames / of the little trees” and fire is a continuous presence. And one could talk at some length about the presence of fire in this final part of the book. It always seems to be in the background sometimes as a simple threat but, in the poem, “Diminished Responsibility”, which details the author’s response to a persistent, if not especially harmful, firebug, it seems to be a counterpart of the poems about neighbours in that it represents the darker side of the human sociability that Caddy is always interested in as well as the crematorium that awaits us all.

And it is no accident, of course, that the book’s title refers to burning. “Burning Bright” is, on the surface, not about bushfires at all but a reference to Blake. It is a complicated poem which begins straightforwardly enough describing the regions of the polar north, severely restricted in term of species of flora and fauna, and then speaking of the Siberian tiger, “padding gold on gold forest floors / rubbing thick black stripes / on black striped birches”. But it finishes on a far more cryptic note:

Under my hand    something that is me    and is not me.
Where it goes I go
hot prints on cool moss
stalking large through the leafy deer-sweet
                                                              in stunningly exhibited
                                                                                               camouflage.

I’ve puzzled over this. It makes “Burning Bright” look like a “poem-poem”, a disguised personal statement about the poet’s own sense of what she is doing since what is under her hand is, surely, her poems. So, to continue this reading, the poems are hers but she is disguised within them and they become a sexy camouflage. “The Pen Inside” is a much more straightforward poem about poetry. It deploys a wonderful image of the pen which does the writing in the evenings as being like those LED garden lights which charge up during the day and switch on automatically when the sun goes down – Caddy’s poetic inspiration is obviously unbidden but reliable. Like poems, these lights cast a small and faintly illuminating glow on the unknown:

as I watch and wait
                            walking from one to the next and back again
feeling for something that’s still there
                                                                  I can just make out.

This involves a nice pun on the word “still” exploiting its double meanings of “yet” and “motionless”. Generally the last poems of Burning Bright have a valedictory quality but when they recall deaths it is usually with a calm, non-transcendent perspective, approving of the mother who wanted her to “chuck my ashes over the fence at the old farm”. I’ve avoided speaking about the second last poem, “The Tibetan Cabinet”, since, although I am sure it is one of the most resonant poems in the book, I’m not entirely sure whether it is about death or poetry. But there are no such difficulties with the last poem, “Dawn”, which, while hardly comparable with “The Tibetan Cabinet”, is clearly there so that the final mood we take from Burning Bright will not be negative. The images are of machines and the social world but, ultimately, it is the natural world which renews itself:

to be for someone a house at night
                                a good car just before the journey
overalls that smell of oil and machines
                                                a lap after weeks away
what the eyes screw up for the heart grabs
                                  feel the great    deep   quiet engine
                                                                                             start.