St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2018, 76pp.
Judith Bishop’s second book is as brilliant and daunting as her first, Event, now more than ten years old. The voice of Interval is familiar from that first book, as are the general structures and assumptions of the poems but there are a number of developments, the most important of which, at the thematic level, are probably contained in the first section of the book which is devoted to poems about the experience of motherhood and parenting. At any rate, Interval, like Event, makes a lot of demands of the reader. Complex ideas are explored in complex poems and the range of interests very deliberately covers the spectrum from the atomic to the cosmos with humans and their distinctive experiences placed between. An additional difficulty lies in the way that the themes are interwoven. Although individual poems have the requisite stand-alone quality, thematically they are likely to tie in with any number of others. As a result, a critic isn’t going to be sure which is the best thread to tug first. Yielding to the structure of the book itself, I’ll start at the beginning with the poems about children.
Since these poems are just as challenging as any of the others, I don’t want to give the impression that in some way Bishop is abandoning complicated material (such as the story of Cortes and his mistress/interpreter Marina which ran throughout Event) in favour of simple, homespun material. But there is a kind of groundedness about the poems of the first section of Interval which affects how we go on to read the later parts – it may, in other words, be more important for the reader than the poet. And there is still a strong sense of thematic consistency since many of the themes of Event are present in these opening poems. One of the dominant images of that book was of birds, appearing as various forms of visitation in various situations. And one of the ways we think about children is as a special kind of visitation. Two of these first poems deal with the death of children and one of them, “Poem for a Little Girl”, ends with a bird image:
She has woken, your love, in the house of your heart. Oh, now she is laughing, saying Look! Ma! Pa! I’m a bird – I’m sunlight – I am everywhere you are.
The second, “Snow”, is based on the famous (in poets’ terms) death of Mallarme’s son, Anatole, and the interest here is in the image of colour and its opposite, whiteness, embodied in snow. At first one thinks back to the poem, “Interval”, from Event, in which snow is an expression of the silence of death. But in that poem snow does have a kind of transmutative power – “you alone / shiver / sun / into diamonds” – and the same is present in this poem where lights, when reflected in snow, develop different colorations, the snow crystals, presumably, acting as individual prisms. Unexpectedly it is the living who are without colour, “restored / to black and white, / our shadows stamp our exile from the dead”. And it’s possible that this not-untypically complex poem might be further complicated by an allusion to Joyce (perhaps prepared by the word “exile”) and the conclusion of his best-known story.
These poems of pregnancy, birth and parenting seem to move in many directions. One is an interest in mind, in matter and their embryonic beginnings. “14 Weeks” speaks of the foetus, beginning to move in its own universe within the mother as a “small philosopher, / materialist of mine” and the following poem, “Arrival” (conceivably alluding to the science fiction short story and its recent film both of which look at the arrival of aliens from an essentially linguistic point of view), has as a refrain the lines “Where the mind comes from, / where it goes”.
If childbirth is an arrival – and it’s worth bearing in mind how much of Event was concerned with visitation – it is also an opening out. Many of the poems from the second section of this book are associated with the idea of opening and it’s something of a surprise to find, in the middle of a first section generally concerned with children, a poem called “Openings” though, as it turns out, the child as a beginner in the complex world of conceptualisation and interaction is an important part of the way these poems want to approach the issue.
“Openings” opens with an image of the field as a place where an incoming signal alerts a response in the mind:
. . . . . Something alights in the meadow of vision. Shimmering, electric, each datum’s serene in its dance of arrival from the world - each met by the sprightly pas de deux of the brain, holiest union, whose coda unfolds in the body’s archipelagos of darkening roads, where the nerve bulb flashes and winks out.
It’s a cognitive psychologist’s view of the interaction between mind and world and, despite the overtones of materialism, it seems happy to see the process in the light of an image-dense poetry. The other four parts of “Openings” investigate different issues: the second part – “Loveliness and horror pass through / the open gate” – focusses on exactly that: our inability to determine what enters us when we are open. It is perhaps relevant to the way in which those earlier poems in celebration of childbirth were counterbalanced by two poems recording deaths. The third part – “Does the tree return her greeting / when the child says hello?” – is about the way in which categories exist in the mind even when the object they refer to is imaginary:
. . . . . Then call the tree by its name: like the unicorn, it steps into your mind and will remain.
The fourth and fifth parts recapitulate the second and third. The former tells the story of a woman knocking at a door looking for her brother who hasn’t been returning phone calls. When the door is opened, the news is bad. And the latter is interested in a child’s perception of reflection whereby the mirror image (of a duck taking off or a willow trailing leaves in water) has as much “realness” as the objects themselves.
The word “openings” has here a primary sense of “doorways” and “the making of doorways” but it has, of course, a secondary meaning of “beginnings” and it would be surprising if the themes of this poem were not present in poems later in the book so that it acts as an initial broaching of some of the subjects. “Thinking Things into Existence” from the third section of Interval, takes up – as its title suggests – the issue dealt with in the second part of “Openings”. Here the imagined which is threatening to become real is that of the human race finding some superior home elsewhere in the galaxy. And if “Thinking Things into Existence” takes up this plan to leave as a conceptual issue, an interesting poem, “Unearthed”, from the second section, looks at the idea of home and humanness as themes in themselves. The macro-issue of the evolution of humans, “and they may be / a different kind of us; // half-clockwork, / far evolved” – is imaged in terms of a child’s development whereby its longing for the maternal “home” is something that will, eventually, pass:
One day, the baby will be free of such a need. One day, they will wonder at the lawn and all we made of it – recalling, touched or puzzled, how it framed our early lives, this minor passage in the history of play.
Much of the material I have covered so far gets explored in the four-part poem that concludes the third section. “Testament”, its title, suggests that this is going to have a base at least in a thought-out position rather than being built around exploring possibilities. (To be frank, given its tone, “Testament” might better have been called “Essay”, which would imply in its original meaning the notion of an attempt to make a coherent statement about a phenomenon.) The first section, “Conquest”, discusses (and given the poem’s tone, this is not an inappropriate word) the issue of the future – “a / howling of the not- / yet in the is” – for an organism with conquest in its genes. It recalls poems like “Thinking Things into Existence”, “Openings”, “Control” and “In the Somme”, but it also deals with issues of perspective: including mapping, abstraction, stylisation and reductionism, especially when it moves from the macro-outer world of human life on this planet in this galaxy in this universe to the inner world:
. . . . . Dragons, no less, in the interior reductions to the more and more refined cartographies of cells and nanograms - and home is where the body is at home, no less the mind . . .
It reminds us that there are a number of poems in this book whose focus is the map (“The New Maps Keep a Weather Eye” and “Rising Tides”, for example) or the stylised, diagrammatised portrayal of physical realities such as one finds in graphs (“Control”). The second part of “Testament” is about perspective in that it wants to understand the human scale in terms of the surrounding scales which range from the near infinite of the universe, cosmologically described, to the atomic:
. . . . . – I look out across the new: it is possible to film a set of molecules that dance; it is possible to hear the awkward chirp of waves emerging from the hatcheries of space . . .
The third part of the poem deals with the idea of limiting one’s perspective to the human scale, though this is compromised by the fact that the borders of the body – the skin – are not absolute and that the elements of the responding body and mind continually cross this border. And the final part speculates about the possibilities that might occur in an evolutionary future (though these developments might be technologically derived). “Testament” has so many of the issues of Interval in it that it is tempting to see it as a central poem. But its mode – assertion, speculation and generalisation – is too essayistic, too early eighteenth century to be satisfying, at least to me. I have more faith in the lyric mode, operating more openly, more intuitively and more likely to make connections outside of the parameters of strict logic. And I think the best of Bishop’s poems work this way too.
The notion of “home” for example, dealt with in “Testament”, is explored differently in “Home” the first poem of the final section of Interval:
Be our heart’s north, daybreak in our daughters’ breath, be the radiance that listens as we gather for the singing of the wood . . .
Admittedly, this is a poem that deals with the issue at an emotional level – as a centring phenomenon in the girls’ lives – rather than at an intellectual one but, in an odd way, “Home” is a more complex poem than “Testament”.
And all the complicated material about openings, explored in the poems I have spoken about so far, is expressed beautifully in one of the four stanzas of a potent, associative and disjunctive poem called “Miniatures”:
. . . . . Laid are the eggs, and the traps, and the plans. One is closed, until broken by urgency and life. One is open – and then - One is closure, with haunted dreams of opening . . .
This brief look at Bishop’s use of different “modes of discourse” – a not entirely accurate description of the difference between lyric and more discursive poetry – leads me to look at another unusual aspect of the poems in this book. This is a technical matter and involves the use of a kind of verbal repetition with variation. I can quote an example from the marvellous opening poem, “Aubade”, (memorable for its wonderful materialist view of erotic love – “Love, the shape-shifter, / is on the move / again: starry, her neural / and her chemical mess . . .” – which in seven words speaks of the double perspective of the cosmic and the microscopic) – which goes on to describe the ache of love as “a lovely quarry / to be quarried in the body”. I suppose, technically, it’s just a pun on the two meanings of “quarry” but other examples (and there are many) involve a distortion of the first word so that it seems to suggest the second. When “14 Weeks” describes the climate of the womb it speaks of a place “where the skeins of inner sun / are a sunset through the skin” so that “skeins” and “skin” are connected. The opening of “Testament” works the “weather”/”whether” homonym and also allows “how” to suggest “howling”:
A queer excitement fills the throat – call it imminence, or a season’s change, but weather’s not what rises and balloons this day, not whether – rather how, and what a howling of the not- yet in the is . . .
and later in the same poem “mind” suggests “mining”.
The most extreme and complicated of these moves occurs in “In the Somme” a meditation on the relationship of mind and body. The third stanza runs:
Flesh, unknown to body, is the shibboleth by which the mind discriminates its own; self, in body’s mouth, is only flesh in anagram. Mind abhors the power of the dumb.
Perhaps its fitting that, with such a subject, the poem should sound so like something out of the Metaphysical poets, but even contemporary minds get some sort of pleasure in teasing it out. “Flesh” is only an anagram of “self” if you replace the “sh” with a “s” and this is what the traditional test of the “shibboleth” (the word is introduced in the first line) involved. Those who know their Old Testaments will know the story of the quarrel between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites in the twelfth chapter of Judges. Each man looking for passage across the Jordan after a defeat was made to say the word for an ear of corn, “shibboleth”. Since Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the “sh” – presumably for dialectal reasons – they could be weeded out and butchered.
All of the examples of this odd technique come to a sort of climax in the last lines of the last poem of Interval, “As If”:
. . . . . so staggered by the light we stagger brightened through the sun to try toward, to ward, to world – to word this muteness, so
It’s not a technique that occurs, as far as I can see, in the poems of Event though the poem “Interval” there does allow the word “mantle” to follow a couple of lines after “diamantes”. The issue is whether it’s a kind of “grace-note” technique, like a sophisticated version of end-rhyme or whether it’s a generative technique of the sort one is likely to find in a more surreal poetry than Bishop’s. The answer – as all of those who want to support the use of rhyme on the grounds that, irrational as this chiming is, it does generate new imaginative possibilities – might be that it is both.