Sarah Day: Tempo

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 74pp.

Since Sarah Day’s new volume shows an almost Roman interest in boundaries, it’s no surprise that its opening poem – about the founding of Alexandria – focusses on the equivocal moment when a flock of birds eats the flour used to mark out the new capital’s city limits and that its third poem – about Pompeii – concludes with the poet, enmeshed in temporal continuities, walking towards a modern farmer tilling a field, “He will not meet my eye / as I skirt his tilled boundary to the station”. Deploying the word “skirt” here might lead us to expect that gender may be going to play an important part in the issue of borders and their crossability or otherwise but Day’s poems are humanist in the broad sense of viewing humankind as a group rather than focussing on its quarrelsome divisions.

Tempo is, like all good books of lyric poetry, founded on a coherent and consistent view of things which finds expression and, sometimes exploration, in the poems. The same spirit and interests inform almost all the poems, radically different though they might be. If one tried to be specific about this underlying nexus of concerns one might isolate the following: borders and crossings, the dimensions of time, stasis and movement, the near and the far (an issue of perspective), and outline (abstraction) and substance. All of these, even the interest in time, express themselves as binaries and the structure and life of the poems (which are made with an apparent though light formal element) is almost always derived from the tensions of oppositions.

To return to the first poem, “El Iskandaria”, we can see that what it is interested in is the way in which the marking out of the city’s outline (an innocent enough thing in itself) is really an act of exclusion whereas the intellectual and mercantile glories of Alexandria (the home of the Library and the Septuagint, among much else) will come from the ships and ideas which flood in from outside:

. . . . . 
In the flurry of wing and hungry beak
though, the soothsayers saw no travesty
but a message in the darkened air
the future city would be blessed with plenty.

It makes one remember the importance of that originary Roman myth where the ill-fated Remus jumps over his brother’s walls but it also makes us think of our own country’s recent history. Living as we do in a state of media-inspired xenophobia and its obsession with secure borders, it’s hard not to believe that there is a sharp contemporary and local point to this poem. The issue of borders has a personal, or at least, familial, perspective in another poem, “Outsiders”, which focusses on the history of the poet’s family in Tasmania – “An immigrant family, / ours was a small island / on the island we had moved to”. This group of exiles sets about documenting difference (there must be a touch of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl” when Day says “Childhood was a taxonomy / of binary difference. / The youngest, I grew up taking notes”) but is, perhaps, saved from complete xenophobia by the ability to alter perspective:

my father, scorned in the machine shop
for his white shirt and tie,
clung for dear life to his reference points,
gravitated to migrants like himself
and discovered, from this antipodean angle,
he had more than a little in common
with wartime Germans.

Although the issue of time in Tempo might be seen as a matter of a discrete theme, in a sense the movement from the past to the present is also an example of crossing borders. We need to be reminded that the past can be seen as irrecoverable in its essentials. “Anachronisms” is a set of examples of changes occurring in the small space of a single lifetime which remind us how different the past was when handwritten envelopes appeared in your letterbox and milk and newspapers were actually delivered to your door. The comfortable bringing of the past into the present, such as is found in popular “historical” fiction, is an act of appropriation full of dangerous potential misunderstandings. But sometimes the past, as in the dead bodies in “In Time, Pompeii”, thrusts itself at us, seeming to declare how “readable” and comprehensible it is. This is the subject of a fine poem, “Fayoum”, which is about the wonderful paintings accompanying the mummified bodies in Hellenistic Egypt two millennia ago. They seem so immediately realistic and relatable-to that, as the poem says, they are like “missives from another age” which make a sieve of time by slipping through into our present. The right attitude to the past, the poems seem to say, is one of balance: we should respect the border of unrecoverable difference while celebrating those odd moments in which these borders are breached.

Many of the poems of Tempo involve, in one way or another and at one level or another, the idea of movement versus stasis. “Northern Window” is a poem about the classic North/South opposition that Auden’s “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno” explores so well. Amsterdam is seen in mid-winter and everything is chilled into a static composition. This includes even the pilgrims in the mosaic in the Rijksmuseum – though the poem, perhaps thankfully, doesn’t call this a “frieze”. The only thing moving is a crane which looks like a Christ figure with open arms. But “on the sill” – presumably of the poet’s room – is a Venezuelan statuette of Mary with her back to the window, “disturbed perhaps / by Anglo-Saxon interiority”, facing the Latin-American world of sunlight, movement but also – and it is the poem’s final word – “evanescence”. “River Fisher” uses this binary in a quite different way. Describing the experience of fishing by wading (I presume it’s about fly-fishing) the poem is interested in the flow of the river which is strong and remorseless as opposed to both its apparent surface stillness and the fact that there are pockets of still water inside the stream itself: “In flowing water, still ponds reside: / a trout, suspended in a boulder’s vacuum / might watch a line of bubbles / slip downstream like an elver”. There are a lot of allegorical possibilities here and it’s tempting to see it as an expression of the oppositions I have spoken about so far. Water, we are told, “resists an interloper” – that is, it resents having its borders crossed – but it is possible to see the still ponds as analogous to those moments when the flood of time (a very Slessorian image and obsession) allows a momentary connection with objects from the past such as the Fayoum portraits. One is tempted to do this because another poem, “Hay Load”, which is interested in the opposition between the flow of oncoming, speeding traffic and the stately progress of a carefully balanced truck of hay specifically says that the hay truck and its load are timeless and not only in the sense that people have always mown and moved grass.

A more complex and often puzzling interest in the poems of Tempo is the idea of outline. In my introduction I constructed it, in the interests of neatness, as an opposition between abstracted outline and filled out completeness. Whether this is accurate or not, it’s an issue that recurs so frequently in this book that it needs some consideration. It first appears in villanelle form, in the fifth poem, “Afterimage”. Since I’ve long ago fallen out of love with this repetitive verse form, I may be forgiven for finding “Afterimage” not really very clear. It seems to focus on negative images, rather than outlines, but clearly wants to make a case for the occasionally superior truthfulness of inversion, of the space between things. Less abstract is “Lightning in a Portuguese Garden” where a flash of lightning provides an image – again in a Slessorian way – “outside time”. The essence of this is, of course, that the portrait presented, having avoided the flux of process, has become, perhaps like a work of art, something that can “disclose more than day” – though if there is a pun there on the poet’s name, then perhaps I shouldn’t equate the lightning picture with art. At any rate, it’s an issue taken up in “Shadow Trees”, complete with reference to Plato in its epigraph, where the City Council (which “seems to have / a policy on chiaroscuro”) delivers shadow trees. Day thinks of the way in which her life of perception is focussed on such outlines:

. . . . . 
Some silhouettes I find I have
always been walking through
like numinous fig leaves on a sandstone wall;
the three-D geometry of banksia in the porch;
a winter oak projected on a public lawn,
twin ashes breathing intricate as lungs
across a busy street . . .

wondering whether this is a result of the fact that with age comes an increasing familiarity with the dead (“Like the dead, / They stand among us on the streets”) or whether it’s a matter of the quality of light becoming sharper (perhaps as a result of climate change).

That subject – climate change – is at the heart of another poem, “The New World Book of Detail”, but the context of the book’s complex oppositions makes it a much more sophisticated and difficult one than this simple thematic description suggests. Here the atlas (found on a beekeeper’s bureau) represents “a false blue present / of fixed littorals and politics”, that is it shows borders and outlines fixed for one time by one perspective. But the world is in constant flux, and climate, though it dominates the poem, may really be only one fairly obvious example of that flux. The bees are vulnerable to that change (spring has come so early that there seems to have been no winter) and the beekeeper will move them to higher altitudes in search of true winter. The bees are a model of the collective, immensely richly productive of the “collective energy which is sweet, aromatic order” and contrast with the beekeeper himself who is an individual. The drive of the poem seems to be to cross the perspective border of the generalised as opposed to the detailed so that although ”˜the language of wide-range weather systems / is mostly generality” yet “a taxonomy of the particular might emerge”.

Which leads me to the final issue: that of perspective, something which, in an earlier review, I wanted to make out was an essential component of Day’s lyricism. The second poem of Tempo, “New Year’s Eve” seems, on the surface, not much more than a celebration of continuities even if the larger context of the book shows that continuity is to be seen as something which is in opposition to borders. But the poem is just as much about perspective, the non-humancentric image of the cosmos which now enables us to imagine seeing ourselves from another vantage point in space and rethinking the borders and oppositions which seem so pressing from our own standpoint. There is a good poem about ageing called “Far and Near” which explores the way perspective ultimately implicates ethics. It begins simply enough with a first stanza that details the changes that acquiring a pair of reading glasses brings – a grey cat’s fur turns out, for example, to be full of colours – but, in the other two stanzas this moves from a matter of visual acuity to a far wider, ethical perspective. And it does it with a very striking, certainly surprising, shift:

. . . . . 
Somehow the distant has moved near:
the black-faced cuckoo shrike against the farthest tree;
once inaccessible lines of poetry. . .

Once the poem has made the movement out from a visual perspective to the act of reading poetry, a host of altered perspectives flood in (if hosts can flood):

I want to know how people thought and slept
and lived in Rome and China and Egypt
a hundred or two thousand years ago.
Sappho, Rousseau, Michelangelo,
stone-age men, before words, how did they see
it all? And television’s importunity
invites contemporary comparison -

the father sheltering his son from gun-
shot, old people ousted from their home:
they all become your uncles, parents, nieces,
or your cousins . . .

These empathic, ethical identifications are a result of altering perspectives but they can also be framed in terms of the crossing of the usual borders of opposition.

I hope that this rather remorseless search for underlying concerns and for generative oppositions doesn’t give the impression that Tempo is a programmatic book in any way. On first acquaintance it is likely to be the variety which makes an impression because this is a book made up of poems which are lists (“Anachronisms”), vignettes (“Hens at the Water Bowl”), celebrations (“Family Tree”, “Luck”), compressed and Delphic lyrics (“Rowan”), staged oppositions (“Plantation”) as well as essayistic pieces like “Far and Near” which always move more imaginatively and subtly than a review like this, for example, does. But it’s the underlying consistency – thematic and structural – that makes entering the world of Sarah Day’s poetry so satisfying. And its concerns, as I said in the beginning, are classically humanist. The best expression might be in “Tanker” a poem about the way in which a supertanker negotiates its own oppositions: the fresh water of the Tagus meets the salt Atlantic and produces monstrous waves which the ship rocks between. While it is tempting to read this situation as symbolising all of the oppositions which Day deploys in her poetry, it’s significant that the final statement is about the crew and the way they are dealing with this: “are they afraid, or are they playing cards / as the pendulum swings?”