Anthony Lawrence: Signal Flare

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 100pp.

The fact that Signal Flare is Anthony Lawrence’s fourteenth book of poems not only gives some idea of how productive a poet he is but also reminds readers that we don’t really have any excuse for being unfamiliar with his fierce and distinctive poetic world. It’s always bracing and mind- and body- expanding to lower yourself into that world again. I’m intrigued that this book’s cover describes it as extending the “lyrical work” that began with The Sleep of a Learning Man, suggesting that that book, his tenth, marks some kind of new development. I can’t see this myself, finding more continuities in Lawrence than departures. At least on a superficial rereading of his work it seems remarkably of a piece, exploring the same themes and developing the possibilities of his powerful poetic technique. It’s true that The Welfare of My Enemy, his previous book, is rather different in that it explores the single theme of disappearance and perhaps readers of Signal Flare need to be reminded of the way in which it reconnects to books like Bark and The Sleep of a Learning Man but it seems indisputable that Lawrence’s is a poetry of consistent obsessions and consistent exploratory methods.

One of the obsessions of Lawrence’s poetry is with extreme states, and a category of such states (which include a great deal ranging from loss to a passionate engagement with the objects and animals of the world) are those which lead to extreme actions. And one of these extreme actions is suicide. It is something we meet in his first book, Dreaming in Stone, in a piece called “Poem for John”, about someone who tried (and failed) to walk “out from his life” and in “John Berryman’s Death” where suicide is combined with the themes of addiction and poetry. Again, though the act is successful, Berryman, landing on the ground rather than the river, fails to step “out from his life” with style or dignity. At any rate, although one doesn’t want to claim continuities when more evidence is needed, it will come as no surprise that the first poem of the first of Signal Flare’s four sections is a lengthy and powerful threnody for a suicide. It’s written in Lawrence’s full high-style – as a threnody should be – and is a formally made thing: forty-nine stanzas of four lines. The long, winding sentences are shared with poets like Thomas (“A Refusal to Mourn”) and the harbour and ferry setting, together with the idea of “crossing” from life to death, recall Slessor’s “Five Bells” but this isn’t really like either of those poems, a reminder that “high-style” comes in more kinds than one might think. Much of its power derives from an incantatory quality in the syntax – heightened by supressing all stops apart from commas – crossed with the kind of brilliantly observed and “captured” incidental details that are a hallmark of Lawrence’s poetry:

. . . . . 
your faith not enough

to keep you from harm
from the end of harm
the Sydney rock oysters
like ceramic fuse plates

sparking and shorting-out in the wash
a ferry disengaging its drive shaft
as it broadsided waves
into the wharf, and then

you were gone, leaving
a pair of sandals unlaced on a stone
while below the hydraulic hiss . . .

This first section of Signal Flare is introduced by a quotation from August Kleinzahler – “And a moon is never so pretty as in a poisoned sky” – and is generally devoted to poems of distress based on loss of one kind or another: there is a second elegy, for example. But the drive of the poems is to make, and live, a life in the context of loss. And so “Nocturne”, focussing on love against the backdrop of a mechanically conceived body with its inevitable physical decline, still concludes positively, deploying a characteristic Lawrence fishing metaphor in an unusual way:

. . . . . 
                    and we leave the future to itself
          if not caring for a likely loss
of memory and skin
          then at least resigned
                    to the way love works
          in the deep and on the flats
sight-casting to shadows
          on the heart or lung . . .

And “Ripple” deals with the problem – of fundamental importance to any kind of poetry whose energy comes from distress – that overcoming the pain of loss is not actually an unmitigated good. It is typical of the never-cliched quality of Lawrence’s poetry that this is couched in two unusual metaphors so that healing “makes a local history from distance” and an unhealed wound means that “sayings like A rip is easy to read / are not meant to be commentaries on coastal conditions”. There is also a significant poem, “The Art of the Eye”, intriguingly positioned in this first section, which is about the extent to which we can trust the senses, those responses which “marry each other / to make of complexity a wild, accessible form”. It’s a sceptical poem: perhaps it celebrates the “art” of its title which is a skill based on such scepticism but perhaps its position here means we should read it as a lament for another kind of loss, the loss of an immediate and trustworthy response by the senses.

This first section – which I am, perhaps, following a little too mechanically – concludes with two poems , “Moth Orchid” and “Eating Mussels” which are celebrations and not, in any sense that I can see, poems of loss. They focus on two senses: the first is devoted to sound and the second to taste. They have that wonderful tactility which seems inborn in Lawrence’s work so that while the first has a strange quality of being simultaneously aerial and heavy, the second (beginning, “Out from the tidal lowering and raising / of a whitewater scrim over shore stones / rinsed by moonlight”) has a sharp, tangy, “brackish” quality.

The second section of Signal Flare – true to its epigraph, “A hen stares at nothing with one eye, / then picks it up” – could be seen as a collection of signatures, visions, appellations and gifts, all words which make up the titles of some of the poems. “Signatures” is a collection, or assemblage, of twenty-one brief, tight poems focussing on traces, sometimes scars, sometimes tracks, which are left in the physical world. The range of these traces is impressive, ranging from “The tannin marbling of dribble stains on your pillow / one of deep sleep’s autographs . . .” to “a fox / making its mark – / an infringement, a wet cough on baited ground”, and they are likely to involve the inner physical world as much as the outer. In a sense these brief poems could be said to belong to an important thread through Lawrence’s work: those poems which deal with the processes by which poetry is made. Although “Signatures” never speaks about poetry, it is tempting to see it as being concerned with the way in which the outer becomes part of the inner awaiting some kind of transformation into poetry.

This may be drawing a longish interpretive bow but there is no doubt that two other poems from this section, “Vision” and “The Pines”, are about the strange processes that make poems. The former, though it begins and ends with what animals see when they are in that nervous, vulnerable state of drinking is really about drinking whisky as a metaphor for processing the natural world into poetry in a state where “as any visionary worth / the length and duration of their gaze will confirm / the spells of darkness and tradition have begun . . .” “The Pines”, on the other hand, enters fully into the crucial issue of how precise observation can be squared with a poet’s imaginative apprehension which registers the wonder and draws other experience in to illuminating it. The poem begins with one of those brilliant observational passages which are simultaneously accurate and evocative – “The pines are dark, with a bleed of sea mist coming through / the brush-worked texture of the air . . .” – then moves on, interestingly, to a burial and finally settles into a meditation the first part of which I will quote at length here, because it is likely to figure in the future when the sluggish freight train of Australian poetry criticism gets moving in Lawrence’s direction:

And while I don’t always look for wonder
in what I see, as I know it’s often best to walk
to let that line of cloud be cloud
not the memory of what I saw in Naples -
Christ under a veil of Carrara marble – I understand
that observation can be just another word
for full immersion, or for skimming the tight skin
of a thought, that it’s transformative, or passive
and when I try to choose between
          taking the air and taking what I need
                    to use for later, for working the rhythms
of breath and blood flow into verse, I mostly fail
in my resolve to leave a scene alone
          knowing what a glance takes in
                    will be changing already as I think of it
the way coastal air unspools . . .

It’s rare for a poet to dwell so overtly on the issues that lie behind his or her craft and, though these are often passed off as difficult to define “spells of darkness and tradition”, write about them so lucidly, exploratively and essayistically.

In the third section of Signal Flare we are in the world of birds though there are also spiders, butterflies and rabbits. The after-effect of “The Pines” is so strong that one wants to read a poem like “Orb Spiders” as some kind of allegory for poets who “harvest blown pollen / which they keep in a sling below the sleeves / that house their fangs” and “What the Koel Wants” – a poem about cuckoos – as being about plagiarism, perhaps, or about the competitive relationship of one poet to another, or even the relationship of poet to publisher! Just as reading the earlier “Signatures” as being about poetic processes may have overstepped interpretive boundaries, so would these readings. But there is no doubt that the last two poems of this section, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings” are, largely, about poetry.

The former focusses on the symbiotic relationship between bird and cattle, registering the way

     when one
creature moves on
another steps in

to consider or disregard
what stirs within
or rises from the grass . . .

A mild state of over-interpretive critical paranoia might tempt one to see this as about poets (slow-moving bovine creatures) and their parasitic critics but the complex interactions are described in this poem as benevolent and extending to the observer: “we leave // changed ourselves / having been where / things are companionable and alive // with possibilities”. Ultimately “Cattle Egret” seems to be about the drive to understand and interpret – to “consult a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide // to animal husbandry” – versus the way in which, by being engaged in a scene of interaction an observer can, himself, be changed by the enriched possibilities.

“Sightings”, on the other hand, is about authenticity and the complexities of both defining it and the role it plays in poetry. The poem begins with a highly symbolic scene – a rabbit on its hind legs in a Cootamundra wattle as though trying “to sample the last dregs / of light from the trees golden strings / or to investigate the sky / from a different perspective”. But since the scene was viewed from a car travelling at speed, the “authenticity” of the poet’s observation can be challenged. The poem settles into a dialogue about the real and the imagined and asks which of the two is the more expansive:

knowing, as you do, how I live
for the imagination, at the expense
you say, of the here and now
or the expanse, I say, in response
of each rare sighting and its afterglow
of each against-the-odds moment that intersects
with the commonplace . . .

an aesthetically insoluble issue which gets resolved, at the end of the poem, in “make-up sex”.

Although the first three sections of Signal Flare exhibit a clear thematic structure (even though the poems’ tones may be quite different) it’s less easy to be confident about how the final section, prefaced by an extract from Michael Donaghy’s “Haunts”, is organised. The opening poems are about fish, fishing and water but the rest involve personal crises. “Domestic Emergencies” is, like “Signatures”, a collage piece and is made up of short poems about problems “in the house”, ranging from an accident with a knife to relationship issues. There is a narrative poem about a saved suicide, another (comic, I think) about a Legionnaire’s Disease “scare”. And just as Signal Flare opened with a poem exploring the state of mind of a suicide, so it finishes with a poem, “Winging It”, exploring the state of a person with an incurable disease: “you can’t shake this sense / that it’s all about to be explained, if not forever / then for good”. Of all these poems, the one that most stays with me is the first, “Klaxon”. It’s worth quoting in full:

At the end of the breakwall I waited
for a tanker – some long labouring shadow
in from Singapore or Taiwan
its decks lit up like a townhouse
in the stacked, unballasted dark.

A maritime pilot had been choppered out
to take the wheel
five storeys over the swell.
The tugs had arrived
and were idling under gulls, smoke and spray.
When a tanker arrived
I could see the pilot’s face, pale and green
in the glow of instruments, his expression
intense and otherworldly.

I caught a crab and held it
as I’d once held the brooch of a Cooktown orchid – tenderly -
an offering to myself.

The crab was glazed and red
from the lamp of a marker buoy
and was changing in shape and colour.
It reminded me of the night
I saw crabs on the wharf at Circular Quay -
I was exhausted, and because my darling
had walked off from where we’d been, unhappily
they looked like spiders
laying snares at the base of a capstan.

When I released the crab it helmeted away
as the tanker sounded its horn
which went on and on
like my incorrect use of, and enduring love for
the word klaxon.

There’s a lot one would want to say about this poem. Of course, much is speculative but that’s the fate of criticism which is, after all, no more than intense and committed reading. The first thing to enjoy is the restless focus, not of the poet but of the poem itself: this isn’t going to be a poem unified by its object. The first line, introducing the protagonist in the scene, announces that it isn’t going to be a poem about oil tankers, despite the fact that their weird physicality, their fate (to move oil over water), their function in global economies etc, all make them lively candidates for a poet’s sharp vision or for allegorisation into various meanings. The existence of an “I” waiting at the end of a breakwall leads us to think – especially in Lawrence’s case – that behind the opening there will be a crisis of some kind, most likely “domestic”. So you feel that the poem’s move from quickly introducing the protagonist to speaking about the tanker and then moving to focus on a pilot’s face above the ships instruments (something which, like the vision of the rabbit in “Sightings”, seems hardly possible and more an imaginative expansion than an “I-was-there” piece of authenticity) is actually a shying away from emotional pain. And I think this is the essence of the poem’s magic. Structurally it looks at first like a set of unpredictable modulations, almost a challenge to the poem to hold them together into some kind of unity. But the unity is an expressive one. The way I read the poem is that its constant shifts – finishing with that memorable comment about misuse of the word “klaxon” – are the self’s protective shyings away from the pain at the centre.

Whether or not this is what “Klaxon” tries to do, it is hard not to register the complexity and sophistication of its form. Lawrence’s poems almost always have an exciting shape to them, beginning at an angle that makes us think ahead to the way in which the poem will play out its shape, something that is rarely predictable and which holds quite a few surprises. But “Klaxon” wouldn’t be the powerful poem that it is if its formal pleasures were not matched with the accuracy and physicality of its images. A labouring shadow in the unballasted dark is a sharp and accurate description which argues that it has come from a magical interaction of the world and the word. The poem which follows it, “The Trawler”, has, apart from an interesting and complex shape, a similar visual acuity, describing a trawler coming upriver as being “like an old shed / held together by wires and light / blue wood”. This visual intensity is only part of the compound intensities that make up Lawrence’s poetry, but it ensures that the poems like these fix themselves limpet-like in any reader’s mind.