Anthony Lawrence: Headwaters

Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2016, 77pp.

“Murmuration”, the second poem of Anthony Lawrence’s new book, is a meditation on the way flights of birds form and unform shapes with what seems like practised ease. The collective noun for a flock of starlings, a “murmuration”, derives from the sound the flocks make. The word itself is Latin and much of the poem is devoted to examining the similarity of the birds in both Australian and Italian (Roman) contexts: the sound they make, the poem says, is the same as the sound of rain “falling over the Pantheon / or through miles of telegraph poles / on the Monaro Plain”. The poem moves towards conclusion as the birds settle down to roost in both locations: the separate worlds of “columns and skylines” and “remnant stands of box iron-bark”:

and where the sky pours down
               like madder lake
                              into the roosting dark
sturnis vulgaris preens feathers
scaled with metal highlights
buffed into song
               and who could not be moved
                              aside from themselves for this.

There is a lot about language here, about English’s dual heritage of Latin and Germanic (it’s no coincidence that the first word used for the birds is “starlings” and the second is “sturnis vulgaris”) but the poem is as equally interested in the sound of the words as it is in their history. It is even possible that the last two lines – bringing the poem home to the effect of its scene on a viewer – might invoke the Greek word “ekstasis” (our “ecstasy”) whose original meaning “out of place” describes the way we can be moved out of ourselves by something (it is the origin of our phrase “beside myself” used to describe the effects of anger).

So, I think, one of the many things that “Murmuration” wants to say is that words have both a history and a presence. It may even be that Lawrence wants to say that uncovering the etymology of words is a scientific activity whereas responding to the presence, their sound and appearance, is a poetic activity. Certainly the whole of twentieth century linguistics is built on the notion that the word’s relationship to what it refers to is arbitrary but, perhaps, the poetic imagination with its tendency towards porous boundaries (as in synaesthesia) is capable of fighting against such rigid separations.

But “Murmuration” is also about the shapes that the birds make and thus introduces an issue that emerges in other poems in the book. “Bogong Moths”, for example, includes a delphic proposition in the middle of a memorable description of other shapes produced by animals:

. . . . .
          as children on farms, we had learned
                      from migrations
and infestations, that form is a mirror for disorder
that the brown shag pile carpet
a drought had unrolled from silo to kitchen
                               had been made of mice
so numerous and fast they moved as one, a ground-
swell of need, that locusts in swarm make patterns
in the air if you lie under them
                               and let your eyes
lose focus to see congested flight break away
from the linear lines hunger draws tight
across the land . . .

I’ve been puzzling over the implications of “form is a mirror for disorder” since my first reading of this book. Perhaps it means that all apparent disorder can be shown to have shape if viewed from a different perspective. In this case location is important and Lawrence is very clear in “Murmuration” that the starlings are seen from below, here by an observer who (in another challenging proposition) is in a position that

could imply supplication
or simply the attitude of someone
at ease with how grace can be
         divisive or calming . . .

The animals themselves (the starlings, mice and locusts) are driven by straightforward needs but, like the formula whereby endless iteration produces an infinitely complex (and in the case of fractals, an incredibly beautiful) result, the patterns they make, when seen from a perspective far enough away to be able to embrace the whole, are examples of intricate unstable forms. And if form can be a mirror of disorder then, as another poem, “Connective Tissue”, says, “disorder // can be the tradesman’s entrance / to mindfulness”.

I emphasise this issue of form, chaos and perspective because it’s part of Lawrence’s complex poetics that I have never really thought about before. I’d always blandly assumed that the startling precision of his images derives from an intense focus on the thing described so that, in the wonderful first poem of his previous book, the oysters on the rocks of the harbour are described as being like “ceramic fuse plates // sparking and shorting-out in the wash” or, in “Paper Wasps” from this new book, the nest is described as being “like a graphite sketch of a shower rose”. Both of these are close to a Hopkins-like precision and, when meshed in a poetry marked by a strong onward syntactic push they have something like the same effect that they have in the poetry of Bruce Beaver (a poet who is both like and very unlike Lawrence) where they have a throwaway quality so that the verse seems to say, “I’ve more important things to do than wallow in precise ”˜capturing’ of parts of the natural world”.

So the poems of Headwaters make one want to look at formal aspects in Lawrence’s poetry, not in the predictable sense of metre, quantity and rhyme scheme but in the sense of the shape of a poem. Starlings may form beautiful and apparently spontaneous shapes but so do poems. The book’s third poem, “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, is worth looking at in detail from this point of view:

I heard you before you appeared. You were hunting
the margins of all things estuarine, tracking the wind-
abbreviated signature of your song.
Descriptions of flight and sound should begin

with how these tidal encampments are home
to three other raptors, and naming them summons
the vowel-driven variousness of your calls:
Osprey, Brahminy Kite, white-bellied sea eagle.

Now I’ll attest to having seen you circle and stall
over the shallows, where mullet were so many
when they turned, the water was lit as though
by bars of polished chrome, and you dropped

to settle in a mangrove, still as the bird below you
in rippling imitation. Often, spur-wing plovers
will fly out to intercept you, the word trespass
broken down into volleys of avian abuse.

Sometimes, if the sky has been reduced to rain
the colour of marsh grass, you will be elsewhere
on the nest you have been shaping and repairing
each year like a busted wicker basket

on a grand scale, or inland, attending a fire
to overrun whatever escapes the flames.
You work the flats for live fish, and turn to carrion
out of season. I turn to you when I need reminding

that wonder and amazement are only a glance away
and that gulls might seem common – that rowdy
beach crowd in white rags craning necks for food - 
yet their beaks and legs are beautiful.

One needs to be reminded of this in full to get some sense of its strange and exciting shape. To begin with, one might see how it seems marked by continuous indirection. Far from focussing obsessively on the thing itself – the highly concentrated, ”mindful” gaze that, allied to a poet’s hyper-expressive language, is supposed to fix the object under view – the poem moves to other matters at every opportunity. It is obviously ecologically correct to say, as the poem does, that you can’t describe an animal properly without describing the animal’s environment as well, but here the poem seems to want to bring in the kite’s fellow raptors just as it wants to bring in the plovers which try to drive it off. It seems entirely deliberate that the poem should conclude not with the bird which is its subject but, first, with an account of how the bird’s effect on the narrator is to remind him that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” and, second, with seagulls, whose legs and beaks are also beautiful.

This poem so deliberately flaunts the conventions of description, turning away from its subject whenever it can and even refusing that subject a final appearance by letting in a scruffy competitor for attention, that it leads you to wonder what the idea behind it is. It certainly makes for a fascinating shape because the strong onward, enjambed drive of the verse, characteristic of Lawrence, is always deflected from its target. Conceivably the twists and turning asides of the poem reflect, in a mimetic way, the twists and turns of the bird in flight. Also the poem might, like the bird, be hunting on “the margins of all things estuarine”. It could be saying (as it does in passing in the beginning) that you define an animal not by a careful, bird-watcher’s checklist of size, colour, call, habits etc but by locating it in its environment and observing the parts of the natural world which impinge on it, but I think the idea is a little wider than this and is rather about observation, imagination and language in poetry in general. The idea, after all, almost reflects the methods of the French Symbolists whereby the inexpressible is “expressed” by the symbols that surround it; it is also the governing idea behind “negative theology”.
“Ode to a Whistling Kite” makes me think back to the last two poems of the animal section of Lawrence’s previous book, Signal Flare, “Cattle Egret” and “Sightings”, especially the former in which the egrets, “attending stock” become “central // and peripheral” much as the kite does in his own poem. “Cattle Egret” deliberately contrasts the practice of consulting “a text / on wetlands birds // or a guide / to animal husbandry” in favour of “observing // in diffuse, patient ways”. In both cases the result of such observation is an effect on the poet himself, either a reminder that “wonder and amazement are only a glance away” or the experience of having been where “things are companionable / and alive // with possibilities”. And, as in “Ode to a Whistling Kite”, there is a strong emphasis on sound, not in the sense of the bird’s call but in the sense of the consonants and vowels of the animal’s names.
The form of “Ode to a Whistling Kite” is related to that of another Headwaters poem, “Giant Dragonfly”. Here the drive towards finding one of these insects in the hinterland mountains is what gives the poem its relentless forward dimension, but even at the beginning the search is thrown aside by the appearance of other items in the landscape:

In the Nightcap Ranges, in needle-point installations
of light on the rainforest floor, a windfall
of quandong berries
                                 give blue shade a darker hue
and upside down on a palm fringe lit with red beads
a wompoo pigeon is dispersing seeds with a call 
like a mistake: whoops, whoops . . .

All the sounds heard are not the expected one of the dragonfly in flight (“something akin to a low, insistent drone / as when a model aeroplane comes in”) but that of Friar birds, and the quest gets temporarily transferred to the various mimicries of the lyre-bird. Eventually the poem moves away from searching for an insect to the poet himself searching for some kind of identity or peace. Interestingly this too has a language dimension when the word “endanger” is taken apart to make an imperative “end anger”: not something that can be done logically since there is no etymological connection between “danger” and “anger”, but something that works on a non-logical plane. The poem finishes with its searcher “either asleep, or mapping / the area for giant dragonflies” thus, formally, bringing it back to its opening subject while at the same time announcing that that subject has not been found. It also, conceivably, ties the end with the poem’s first line in that the sleep is occurring in the memorably named “Nightcap Ranges”.

Something of this kind of “form through negatives” occurs in a long and difficult poem, “Connective Tissue”, whose title suggests, as does that of a later poem, “Bloodlines”, that the interest is in connections rather than disjunctions. “Connective Tissue” is punctuated by concretised metaphors based on experiences which the poet claims not to have had: the opening lines are a good example:

I have not paused at the summit
of a building or leaned
from the rail of a bridge, waiting

for the wind to turn, and to then
base-jump into the whistling night
my chute thrown clear to open

like an ink bloom in the wake
of the lit canopy of a cuttlefish
but I have stood beside you

as good news came through
the radio-active test site
your body had been . . .

Although the poem is really about connections between the speaker and his past, between the speaker and his partner, one of the things that I think this opening (indeed the whole structure of the poem) wants to say is that an experience can be inhabited imaginatively even though its only function is as a metaphor. The vision is just as intense as in the contemplation of the “real situation” of a medical outcome: witness the memorable comparison of a parachute to the ink bloom behind the canopy of a cuttlefish. In “Giant Dragonfly” the plants and birds which the poem focusses on in the absence of the central insect are realised just as intensely.

These matters of poem-shape, vision, metaphor and language are very complicated and I have the feeling that I should reread all of Lawrence’s previous work to feel comfortable with any of the generalisations. But then, really major poets need to be reread constantly. Certainly many of the other poems of Headwaters can be tied to these issues. “In Extremis” is an unusual poem in that it is ostensibly about an historical figure, Douglas Mawson, but its real interest is in the way Mawson, in a near-fatal situation, finds that his mind creates apparitions or, to put it more relevantly, breaks down the barriers between reality and imagined reality:

. . . . . 
In the late night flare and burn of the Aurora Australis
he finds the arc of a distress signal. In displacements of ice
breaking bone and rifle shots . . .

And, in extremis, he thinks about the origins of his name (we aren’t told whether he thinks of himself as “the son of the gut” or “the son of the sea-mew”), another example of the issue of language hovering alongside perception and imagination. (I’m not sure how relevant it is but it’s difficult not to read this poem alongside Michael Dransfield’s “Bum’s Rush” where the cave in the ice also encourages hallucinations but where the extreme situation is a result of drugs.)

And then there are others. “Loss” is a little poem about forgetfulness and the guilt of forgetting where one’s father’s ashes are – not so much a poem with a perspective from the negative as a poem about something that breaks the connecting tissues. And in “Lies” the lies are imagined to take on a physical form which makes a metaphor concrete – “Saying I had to attend a meeting / when a friend was breaking down / turned my voice into a baling hook / in the wall of a disused wool store . . .” “Paper Wasps”, apparently simply about being stung by wasps might really be about how the fiercely accurate visual sense (the nest, as I’ve quoted before, looks like a drawing of a shower rose) is replaced for a moment in the face of intense pain before reasserting itself in a final image of the wasps’ nest as being like a snow dome with the wasps as snowflakes trailing “live wires”.

It’s a complex and magnificent poetry able to activate our own imaginations in response. The poems’ shapes, which I’ve concentrated on here, are always interesting and challenging, and as a result Lawrence’s poems are never a wodge of imaginative discourse dumped onto the page. At the same time, the strong drive of the verse always means that the aesthetic beauties are never merely effete or self-congratulatory. For those new to this poetry, Headwaters makes an excellent introduction to Lawrence and there is the additional benefit that it comes in such an attractive package. I know I have said this before but it is worth repeating that the poetry series from Pitt Street Poets sets very high standards in book design: these things have certainly improved since I was the publisher of a small press a quarter of a century ago.