Sarah Holland-Batt: The Hazards

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2015, 93pp.

We’re sometimes told that second books are more important than first books in that the former often contain the multiple explorations of a poet’s early work – experiments in voice, style and subject which produce successful poems but which are not necessarily indications of a true, individual manner – whereas the latter give us some idea as to what a particular poet’s mature style is likely to be like. This isn’t always true of course; some poets find their distinctive way of thinking and writing in the first poem of their first book and all later developments spin out from there. Sarah Holland-Batt’s second book, the strikingly impressive The Hazards, is unusual in that it replicates the varied modes of her first book, Aria, almost exactly.

Rereading that first book, one can see that there are two basic modes: lament (for the failure of love affairs) and rhapsody, though a rhapsody that is rarely celebratory. Although The Hazards is a more substantial book, these two poles recur. The last section is almost entirely devoted to documenting the pain of amatory failure. Sometimes, as in “The Atlantic” (definitely an “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”!), a grotesque image of the external world is wedged, Lowell-like, against the body of the poem which is essentially narrative:

Now you lord it in a blue-blood job
that will make you a millionaire by forty . . .
If only I could wait. Yesterday’s Times said
more body parts washed in at Oak Beach:
Long Island Sound’s serial killer
stalks his hunting grounds while we sleep. . . .

“The Invention of Ether” is another piece which is Lowellian in manner, setting and allusions. The Boston Common, the setting of “For the Union Dead”, also contains a statue celebrating the discovery of ether, the first widely used medical analgesic. But though the poem longs to tap into this pain-killing ability, the pain returns (“Like a hammer to the knee / it jerks in and out of focus, always throbbing”). This poem also finishes with segment from a different world:

Still, I cling to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.

And then there is “Via dell’Amore” – “Nothing will destroy the Ligurian Sea / or that sheltered spot where we sat / by Riomaggiore’s corrugated rocks / and ate a loaf and Spanish salami . . .) where the failure is expressed both directly (“Was that the end of love? / No money, in no month to swim, / we stayed until failure hit the rock”) and through a clever image: the via dell’amore of the title is a lover’s pathway between two Ligurian villages but in this poem there is no movement and the stationary lovers are stranded in one of the villages.

What I’ve called the rhapsodic mode in both these books probably now needs some more careful description in that it refers to poetic form than content. Rhapsody is usually one of the forms of celebration but, though there is celebration here, it is often quite equivocal. The method of these poems involves a repeated introductory phrase. “Of Germany”, which opens the book’s third section of poems, very loosely about place, is a series of prepositional phrases beginning with “of”: “. . . of Berlin / on a Monday afternoon, of love / and of Germany, of the scrawny Dalmatian / running free in the Englischer Garten . . .” “No End to Images” – “No end to grief, never any end to that . . .” – does something similar with “no end to” and “O California” is set of objects for the phrase “I want”. Although the word “rhapsody” suggests a lack of structure, it really refers to a lack of conventionally accepted structure: how the thing is organised and how it is going to make its way to a fitting conclusion is, if anything, thrown into sharper relief. In “O California” the shape of the poem seems to be the dark underside of the sub-tropical paradise which is suggested all the way through (so that a list of roads includes “the death roads”) and which blossoms at the conclusion when the syntax switches from “I want” to “won’t you”:

                                 I want my perfect teeth
preserved, California, my teeth buried
in the earth like a curse, California, and won’t you show me
where the bodies are kept, California,
won’t you show me, show me, show me.

Something similar happens in “Of Germany” where after a concluding series of “ofs” – “of vanity and perishable memory, / of the invisible cats sleeping indoors / and the longest nights” we meet “the beautiful cars / that go so suicidally fast.” A poem from earlier in the book, “Approaching Paradise”, is overtly about the dark and light sides of a tropical beach environment – “Praise the bloated body washed in” – but is structured by continuous and unpredictable appearances of the central word, “paradise”.

The Hazards includes another sort of Holland-Batt subgenre that we met in Aria: the poem of a Queensland girlhood. “The Orchid House” is about the grandfather’s orchids, “Tropic Rain” – conceivably categorisable as a rhapsodic poem – is about Queensland storms, “Botany” is not about the bay but about school classes on mushrooms and the mysterious messages they leave, and “A Scrap of Lace” is about a grandmother’s lacemaking. “The House on Stilts” – which acknowledges Malouf as its inspiration – is about the underside of a Queensland house, “that wedge of darkness / chocked beneath our weatherboard”. All these seem to parallel poems like “Cavendish Road”, “The Woodpile” and “The Sewing Room” from Aria.

This all poses the question of whether The Hazards is essentially a revisiting of the possibilities opened up by Aria, containing, perhaps, more accomplished and confident poems, or whether it branches out into any kind of new territory. The differences, slight at first, turn out to be significant. And the main difference is that the “art” references in Aria are usually literary (Marquez, Chekhov, Dante, Carver etc) or musical (Rachmaninov, Puccini, Beethoven) whereas those in The Hazards seem to come largely from the visual arts. These include references – as well as responses to – paintings by Ingres, Lucian Freud, Botticelli, Matisse and others.

I have the sense, not entirely logical or supportable, that these paintings take Holland-Batt into rather different thematic areas. They certainly seem to lead into new areas structurally. They emphasise, as the poems about text and music do not, the idea of the moment of entry since paintings are “entered” in a rather different fashion. “Interbellum”, which is based on Hopper’s “Summer Evening”, a painting showing a couple on a porch in a patch of light and excluding everything else by banishing it into darkness, emphasises all those things which occur outside the frame, outside of the “crate of light”:

Late April: forsythia
             grafts to green wood,
napalms into blossom ”“

simple yellow in the yard, earnest,
             pliant as youth.
Inside, buttered rooms

are cooling . . .

The way in which “Against Ingres” enters the painting is by moving from an accurate, remote description of the painting’s subject to an imaginative entry into her life (“The women / she oiled faithfully every morning / are distant as the cries of a peacock / in the sultan’s garden”) and from there to an imagined interaction between the subject and the painter:

I’m tired, I’m cold, I’m hungry.
Ingres, it’s late, it’s raining, the servants
and girls are dreaming in bed
of knives and birds that cry like wolves
and by now even you must know
what it means when a woman turns
her back on you.

“Primavera: The Graces” enters Botticelli’s landscape (“See, we move through the black wood / like gods through time . . . “) to make the point that the endless circularity of the seasons is the opposite of the fate of the human which only gets one go at living. It seems to match the painting with Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”, beginning with oranges and ending with birds:

. . . . .
                Only the birds hurtling
like flung stones know the truth:
it is in the tiny fandango
of their pulse, in the leaves scratching
them through the air, in their descent
which is short and unspectacular
and spills out of them like wine.
Fear it: your lives are short too.

One of the most striking poems of The Hazards” is “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” which is, perhaps, about leaving painting for music. The poem is structured as a semi-comic farewell (possibly recalling MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”) to a universe ruled by light in favour of a “real” world accompanied by the sound of music:

. . . . .
Open the window: outside is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

Finally, there is “Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles” which seems the key text in these poems about paintings. It begins by listing a series of works – mainly paintings of violence – which “you do not want to enter” but finishes with one of those real life tableaux that we met in poems like “The Invention of Ether” and which may be a central part of Holland-Batt’s technical apparatus. Here she describes her father’s killing of a crow: the suggestion is that such autobiographical scenes are a good deal more difficult to “enter”. Whether this is a reference to the fact that entry is difficult for her audience who do not inhabit the same psychic landscape as the poet, or whether they are difficult for the writer to enter, either because they are emotionally raw or because they haven’t been pre-processed as “art”, I’m not sure. At any rate this poem stresses the significance of the act of entry just as, in its final lines, it stresses the importance of the eye, the organ of entry. There are eyes everywhere in these poems and they often attract the most pungent metaphorical language. The eye of the bird in “The Vulture” is “bubbled tar”, those of the eel in “Life Cycle of the Eel” are “flat as dishpans” and that of the bird in “The Macaw” is a “black bowl”.

The tone of almost all the poems of The Hazards is phenomenally self-confident, full of propositions (“Blue is not the colour of paradise”), injunctions (“Listen, I tell you: it is lonely / to scrape eyeless among the stars”) and descriptions of elevated personal experience (“Rain I have known like music, a tin oratorio . . .”) But what prevents this self-confidence from seeming overweening, even hubristic, is that you feel that at the core of the poems is the desire to annex new experience. Hence, if I try to force my method of always making an attempt to see underlying unities in a poet’s work, it could be said that the essential gesture at the core of Holland-Batt’s work so far is the “step into”. It’s perhaps for this reason that the poems relating to paintings, which, as I have said, represent worlds you can enter, take her work to profounder levels than in her first book.

Two early poems, “A Scrap of Lace” and “An Illustrated History of Settlement” may be interesting in this context. The first begins as a standard piece about childhood, speaking of a grandmother’s lace-making but makes a more interesting move than do most of these kinds of poems when the eye of poet tries to “enter” (I may be stretching my metaphor here) the world of the lace itself:

Sometimes I have lifted a piece
          of that lace up to the light
and tried to unwind it with my eye.
          I have never found an opening
in the lashes and loops of it,
          the cobwebbed knots . . .

The poem then opens into a “real” historical world of settlement Australia, describing a convict transported for stealing lace. Unlike the poems I’ve spoken of already, it isn’t a matter of jamming a grotesque reality (a “skunk moment”) onto the end of an interior poem. Here it is a genuine modulation, eased by the pun on “lashes” but not caused by it. “An Illustrated History of Settlement” is another ekphrastic piece which describes Fox’s painting of Cook’s arrival. Its method is the opposite of the work itself in which everything is designed to highlight the central figure. This poem wants to begin with the fringes and focus on them, only slowly working towards the centre:

. . . . .
And here in the foreground, a Rubenesque swell
of redcoats tumbling over the beach
like a flock of exotic birds.
Faces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness.
Thighs bulging in white breeches.

And a man in the centre with his arm outstretched – 
This is often where the eye enters.

And often leaves.

In terms of historical method this seems to express no more than the contemporary cliché that true history lies not in the great actors but in the ordinary, forgotten people. But the poem is saved from cliché by its deployment of a notion of entering which has been made more complexly resonant by occurring in so many other poems.

Eyes and entries. It makes one realise the importance a poem like “Galah’s Skull” where the poet finds a bird’s skull with a worm in one eyesocket which seems to want to root itself like a fern. The entire scene is a complex metaphor in which “one eye [is] rolled to the daylight moon / the other pressed down into the earth”. And then there is “The Vulture”, the first of a series of poems about animals. The vulture is the processing machine, the “Shaman of transfiguration”, the “afterlife of all things”. But what stays with me from this poem, which grows stronger the more you reread The Hazards, is the way he is introduced in the first line of the poem where he “leans out of himself / into morning”. I read this as the essential gesture of entering (the poem goes on at length to describe how he enters the dead bodies of animals) and thus I have grown to see him as perhaps the totemic beast of the poems of this fine collection.