Jaya Savige: Surface to Air

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 78pp.

Jaya Savige’s first book, Latecomers (2005) began with a longish poem about the sea. In it a dead beetle floats, holding on to the serrated edge of a charred banksia leaf, and the poem goes on to make quite a bit out of this, investigating the idea of drifting at the mercy of the winds and tides of the world, hanging on, in death, to something that fits with us:

for, what we seek to hold to

when the world has
loosed its hold on us

may be what prevents us
from never having been . . .

It’s a bleak poem registering the infinitely small “tiny fires” of each individual against the massive and impersonal forces of the sea. And its first words – “I have come to expect / too much of the ocean” – is a reminder that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as especially favoured by the cosmos. And throughout Latecomers there are poems in a range of modes that are about Savige’s mother and her shockingly untimely death. You sense, in the variety, that there is a continuous revisiting of a wound each time with a different poetic configuration as though Savige were trying poetry out to see if it could assuage the pain.

This second book, Surface to Air, also begins with a poem about the sea. Although it looks a very different poem to the one in Latecomers – instead of being a single meditative arc it is a set of brief lyric sections blending description and statement – there is no doubt that it is intended to recall the earlier poem, especially in the section which begins:

Impossible to resist
the littoral drift,
stay steadfast in the swash

And, like that poem, it is designed to act as a kind of entrance-way to the book as a whole. They are different poems, though, in that the former is, for all its large statements, a mood piece whereas the latter is very much about the issue of leaving behind the sand island of the title and its concomitant domestic responsibilities. Surprisingly most of the images are not about lateral movements but rather about depths. But more of this opposition later.

It’s hard to count “Sand Island” as a success – there is something stagey about its “I have to go” quality – and it may well be that poetry (or Savige’s poetry) simply isn’t good at airing and resolving dilemmas. Almost immediately in Surface to Air we meet something poetry is good at doing: celebrating the moments of peace or bliss in the destructive tidal swirls of entropy:

A serene riot of bees, a pollen air,
one by one they zero in
on the bougainvillea. Our backyard god’s
a giant fig, downloading
gigs of shade onto the fresh cut grass.
Under the house, your summer dress
pegged by the shoulders
approaches and ebbs, a tidal apparition.
Pause on the back steps, Mona Lisa tea-
towel flung over your shoulder . . .
. . . . .
To not spill this thimbleful of stillness.
Soon we will return to the impossible
puzzle of light, cut by hot
oscilloscopes. Even now the crisp
silhouette of a crow sharpens itself
upon the rusting apex of the hill’s hoist,
caws, cocks for an answer. This time
we let it ring out, a black cell
buzzing across the dresser
when we are both undressed.

As usual with fine lyrics like this, there is a lot more going on than is apparent at a casual reading. In fact, when I try to come up with single description that might serve for Savige’s poems, I’m left with the word, “hardworking”. These are all very hardworking poems. At one level this might be no more than a lot of punning which manages to lace the different levels of the poems together tightly. In the poem quoted above there is a lot of weight on that strange noun, “dresser”. The sinister call of the crow, inevitably associated with death, is like a cell-phone call which lovers, who are, in Slesssor’s phrase, “out of time”, can ignore. Savige is an habitual punster and has an eye for odd words and phrases which have entered with a new technology (like “cell”) and have quickly become dead metaphors whose oddness is barely registered. An entire six-part poem, “The Minutes” is built out of mercantile/sexual puns (“She chooses / the rollover option // to minimize the risk / on her investment. // He’s just glad she’s / not losing interest”). Though the result might seem no more than clever, the epigraph from Auden “where executives would never want to tamper” suggests that this set of puns may be excused because it sets itself the nobler task of exploring relationships (at a verbal level) between money, eroticism and poetry. We also meet this punning on recent idioms in a poem attacking the mistreatment of asylum seekers. “Dead Air” celebrates the protest of Merlin Luck who, when evicted from an early series of Big Brother turned up for his interview with his mouth taped shut. The poem finishes:

The gobsmacked host
couldn’t turn to grist

Your expensive silence,
mute shout out to those
like you, we locked up
then voted off the show.

(The issue of refugees and asylum seekers, guests and invaders appears also in a fine poem, “Xenia”, deriving from Zeus’s title as “Xeinios” – “guardian of guests”:

. . . . . 
Having lost the bet with Poseidon

You’d hope for Xenia, the first safety net.
You’d think its merits were self-evident,
even in a place of endless dust.
But if one never thinks himself a guest

In a strange land, how might he intuit
the economy of hospitality?)

But the most striking way in which these poems work hard is in their remorseless intertextuality. Savige is very well read, especially in Latin and in modern Australian poetry, and the poems are packed with allusions. The first line of the poem I have quoted, for example, has a little joke that hovers between pun and allusion when the phrase “a pollen air” sounds out the name of the great French poet. The Mona Lisa tea-towel recalls a poem by Nigel Roberts and, even more weirdly, the phrase “zero in” in the second line reminds me of another poem from Latecomers where the island is the site of a WWII exercise and the first line is, “They thought our Wirraways were Zeros” (which also puns on the words “zero” in its cant sense of “worthless”). Of course, this may be drawing a long bow (to use a cliche which itself invites a whole host of metaphorical extensions!) but my excuse would always be that Savige’s poetry does this sort of thing, even to the most innocent of critics. Sometimes the allusions seem little more than contingencies – the Mona Lisa tea-towel, for example, or the echo of Bruce Dawe when the children at the Riverfire festival in Brisbane are “hoisted / high on shoulders”, or the quoting of the last line of Dransfield’s “Epiderm” – but on other occasions they are far more structural.

“Circular Breathing”, for example, is a fine poem – one of a series about visiting Italy – and in it Savige stumbles across a man playing a didgeridoo in Rome near the great church of Santa Maria. (Its title suggests more than the breathing technique of a didgeridoo player since the idea of breathing, of coming up for air, is found throughout this book.) Inevitably the situation leads to a lot of meditative material about topics as far apart as cultural dislocation and religion. In my reading of the poem, the poet wants to see the conventionally venerable Catholic church as a johnny-come-lately from the perspective of Aboriginal traditions while registering that those traditions are not ones which, as a white Australian, he comfortably inhabits. At any rate, the significant point for my description of this book is that the poem is structured in a way that is designed to recall Les Murray’s “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” (“There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him”) from its opening lines, “There’s a man with dreadlocks playing the didgeridoo / in the Piazza di Santa Maria, and everyone is listening” on. As is so common with allusions, one isn’t sure how far to take this. It’s tempting to remind oneself of Murray’s catholicism and see “Circular Breathing” as a kind of displacement of Murray’s famous poem so that what was the uncanny appearance of true religious expression in the setting of a superficial, mercantile and godless city suddenly becomes the expression of a far older religious tradition in the context of a comparatively (in terms of age) recent religion. As so often with allusions and borrowings which are more than passing gestures, a reader finds that he or she is asking whether this is a homage, an extension, an engagement or a rebuff.

“On Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea“, “Any glossy ad for cheap call rates / could match this shot: a sixteenth-century // Paris Hilton, statuesque on a jet ski . . .” clearly derives from John Forbes’s great “On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra“, “Any frayed waiting room copy of Who / could catch this scene . . .” but the exact nature of the relationship between the poems isn’t entirely clear. It isn’t a Tranter-like rewriting, it isn’t an ironic updating and it’s in no way a critique. I’m left with the feeling that it is a homage without an ulterior motive, but one would have to say that the Forbes poem with its unforgettable conclusion is the better of the two. A line from Forbes’s “Stalin’s Holidays” (“juniper berries bloom in the heat”) also appears, transformed, in “Missile” as “Arabic numerals bloom on the dash”. And then there is “Stranded”:

Bailing you out
like Angela Merkel.

Keeping you grounded
like Eyjafjallajokull.

There’s not much doubt that this wants to be read as a homage to Laurie Duggan, mimicking his sharp social eye linked with his sensitivity to the double meanings of words like “grounded” to produce a short and sharp comic piece.

And, finally, on this subject, there is “Dransfield in Bavaria” where the allusions are complex. It is made up of six six-line poems forming a kind of travelogue devoted to Germany. The second poem contains the kind of knowing contemporary pun that I spoke of before when the sight of an “eviscerated swan” is followed by “fox news”. On the surface, the allusions to Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (“Munich’s cold slap shocked us” and “All-you-can-eat sushi surprised us / over the Starnbergersee”) are more obvious than those to Dransfield but I think that the poem is constructed to put Bavaria alongside the addict’s frozen waste from “Bum’s Rush”. Its last poem actually addresses Dransfield and finishes up engaging Dransfield’s Courland Penders dreams of rural aristocracy:

To quit heroin you have to leave the country,
the novelist says with a wink.

I wonder what you would have made
of Europe. What I’d have made of junk.

I guess I’ve never truly understood
the romance of those ruins of the blood.

Perhaps the intriguing complexities of high density allusiveness are best seen in “Deciduous” describing a cold climate (its opening line is “Maple leaves like rebel angels waken”) as a way of treating the sight of kids playing in the park. These children, frolicking with the fallen leaves are “laughing in the mulch / not seeing themselves much in the compost, / their own rough touchdown forgotten”. Why existence should be configured as a continuous fall – almost on the Neoplatonist model – I’m not sure but it reintroduces the theme in the book of horizontal travel (for example, leaving Bribie Island or going to New Zealand, Italy or Bavaria or travelling home in a car in a journey that becomes a voyage to Aldebaran) contrasted with vertical (falling to earth, diving, exploring the levels of sea bed, surface and air, coming up for air, entering the unconscious). Finally (in this analysis that reveals how shaky my grasp on this poem is) it makes allusions to computer terms – “phoenix”, “fire fox” – and looks remarkably like a poem that appears a few pages before called “Desuetude” with which it shares a remarkably similar title. That poem, like “Deciduous”, has a downbeat tone and is about the poet’s attempt to write a poem:

. . . . . 
      And when all else 
fails, he picks any other bright tidbit
at random: the planet-sized diamond, say,
dead star just discovered in Alpha Centauri.
. . .  . .
       so that even now, he sits
to write a well-made poem for you,
with words that flare a moment before they
die, like flecks of magnesium when lit,
but he has fallen out of the habit.

There is, of course, a whole genre of poems about the inability to write a poem and “Desuetude” is, at least, an honourable addition.

Finally there are three poems about the poet’s dead mother. One, “The Pain Switch” deals with the moment of death and is very raw for both poet and reader. The other, “Duende”, is brilliant. It is a sonnet and the spirit of the title is the dead mother’s voice, suddenly and clearly heard as an “urgent reprimand, maternal” at bedtime, “that liminal space, lamp off, / day’s bright splinter almost extracted”. It finishes with a grotesque and wonderful image:

How I wanted to demolish that wall,
retrieve the warm bubble of your breath.
How I shuddered like a bulldozer in winter.

It might be too much to map the growth in Savige’s poetry by comparing how good “Skin Repair”, “The Pain Switch” and “Duende” are compared with similar attempts in Latecomers to deal with this painful event, but there is no doubt that these poems are fine achievements. They seem to avoid the punning and the allusions although “Skin Repair” has the sort of conceptual slipperiness that often appears in Adamson’s poetry where divisions between subject and metaphor are kept deliberately vague.