Sarah Holland-Batt: The Jaguar

St Lucia: UQP, 2022, 127pp.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s brilliant new book is very much built around her father’s long illness and eventual passing. Not only is it the subject of the book’s first of four sections but the final section, which looks like being – like the third section of her previous book, The Hazards – about place and culture, is distorted, as it progresses, into poems about firstly her grandfather and his place – Gibraltar during the war – and finally her father in the long concluding sequence, “In My Father’s Country”. Not that readers of Holland-Batt’s work won’t have met the father before. He appears in “The Woodpile” an early poem of her first book, Aria, chopping wood in what seems to be a symbolically significant scene: the stacked wood encourages decay and various kinds of spider although “the heartwood burnt longest”. And in “Embouchure” and “The Flowers on His Bedside Speak of Eternity”, both from The Hazards, we re-encounter him, this time in a serious stage of the illness. The grandfather, especially his painting, also appears in two poems of Aria. In the light of the intense focus of The Jaguar, these seem like preliminary sketches, poems more interested in the poet’s unease than in forensically describing the father’s illness and seeing how something so extended and debilitating can be approached by poetry. We also find a reference to her father’s death in her excellent book of brief studies of individual Australian poems, Fishing for Lightning, when she looks at Brendan Ryan’s “A Father’s Silences” as an example of elegy. She has a response that reminds me of my own when my first child was born: astonishment at the fact that the world seemed to be going on in its ordinary way as though it were unaware that something earth-shattering had occurred. Of course, she met with “things dying, I with things newborn”.

If one compares “The Burr” – the first poem of “In My Father’s Country” – with the first poem of the final section of the book itself, “Driving Through Drystone Country”, you can see how one of her many talents – the ability to deal with landscape in a verbally tactile way – is given an allegorical twist that in no way reduces the verbal intensity. “Driving Through Drystone Country” contains what I think is a non-symbolic registration of environment:

. . . . . 
Bronze field barns
slope in local vernacular -
sandstone cubed with a level eye,

quoins of gritstone
bracketing each corner.
Slovenly roofs pitch

over hay store and cow stall -
industry of the particular -
and everywhere the regular metre

of drystone walls, 
arrowheads of shale
fitted with flagstone precision. . .

This is brilliant of its kind – I like the way “pitch” is converted from a noun to a verb – but its kind is registration, the proof for us readers of poetry that prose must attain a pretty high level before it can bring off anything like this when, in a novel, especially, it enters one of its descriptive passages.

The opening of the first of the eleven poems that make up “In My Father’s Country” has the same kind of precise evocative registration:

It is guesswork, this slatternly backcountry
I climb in darkness:

ice shirring gunmetal moors,
each hillock and rise

a cairn of tortoise stones,
slate in skid and trip steps . . .

but here it is overlaid by the way the poet is entering the landscape. Here it is not a matter of just registering but of deploying the idea of a trip through the landscape of her father’s origins in Yorkshire (I think) as being simultaneously a search for him. And “a search for him” is also allegorical since it is a search to understand the parent whom she has been watching unravel during his long decline. In fact, the second poem of this sequence says:

                    Your dying

has taken the better part
of two decades, as if,

handed this one last task,
you have resolved 

to do it exhaustively . . .

That word “better” might carry a little more weight than it usually does here, especially if we register that that is probably almost the entire length of Holland-Batt’s writing career, making her father’s decline and death more than a solitary traumatic event. In a very practical sense, understanding her father’s life is also understanding her own.

“In My Father’s Country” maps both external and internal landscapes and it has, at its heart, a kind of progression through time as well as landscape, beginning with his boyhood and ending with his death. The poems of the first section of The Jaguar, though they too are organised chronologically, don’t seem to be about the progression of the illness. I read them almost as a set of variations, responses to the question of how one can deal with these events poetically. The first one, as its title, “My Father as a Giant Koi”, suggests, looks to the power of metaphor. But the poem’s central metaphor, instead of being a simple comparison to convey something of the man’s state, is allowed to develop a life of its own, pulling the poem away from the hospital bed towards the world of the koi. It’s not an unusual technique in poetry but here it is strengthened by Holland-Batt’s ability to make the metaphoric world as densely registered as the world of the hospital. The first few lines will show what I mean:

My father is at the bottom of a pond
perfecting the art of the circle.
He is guiding the mottled zeppelin 
of his body in a single unceasing turn
like a monorail running on greased steel,
like an ice skater swerving on a blade.
His scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon.
His tail, a luxurious Japanese fan.
He is so far beneath the green skin of duckweed
he cannot make me out, or I him. . .

One shudders to think what Newton, who described poetry as “ingenious nonsense”, would have made of this, but creatively it is very compelling. The intense poetic language is reserved not for the father but for the metaphor of the fish – “his scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon” – even to the point of deploying metaphors – the ice skater, the zeppelin, the Japanese fan – which at one farther remove illuminate the central metaphor of the fish. And, of course, one doesn’t have to be a sharp hermeneuticist to see that there are multiple other ways of reading this poem. The following of the metaphor of the fish, for example, might be designed to deflect the poet from facing up to the reality of describing the symptoms of her father’s mental and physical decline openly. If deliberate, this could be read as an additional expressionist layer to the poem saying, “Look how bad it is that I take refuge in a spiralling of metaphors”. If it is unconscious, it might be that the tension between the situation and the baroque metaphors give a structure to the poem that the poet recognises as “working” and producing a satisfactory whole.

Something similar occurs in “The Kindest Thing”, another poem from this first group. It deals with a specialist’s advice to withhold antibiotics so that her father will die from pneumonia which he calls “the old man’s friend”. This, and the handsomeness of the doctor provokes a double metaphor: python and mantis:

                  he is almost shining 
with charisma and vitality, this man who coaxes
patients towards death like an emerald boa
stretching its pink jaw  by inches
until the glass frog is entirely inside the snake’s head,
subsumed into the hypnotic knot of its body,
its scales flexing electric green as new leaves,
its white lightning bolts rippling and contracting -
or like the sinister musk blossoming
of an orchid mantis – limbs variegated
like borlotti beans in a flecked rose and cream -
swaying like a silken flower to lure
the dreaming crickets in . . .

There is a lot that is provoking this more than extended metaphor. The poet finds herself attracted to the handsome doctor of death and the extended metaphor might be read as partly a kind of personal distraction from one’s own self-disgust. And in a way the poem enacts this because the imaginative language of the metaphors is as seductive as the operations of the boa and matis themselves: it’s hard not to think of this poem as “the one with the rose and cream borlotti beans”. At the same time, as the poem goes on to explore, this isn’t a matter of relinquishing oneself to death but of relinquishing someone else – “I am offering over my father, tenderly / unhinging death’s jaws”.

The second section of The Jaguar begins with a poem of place and leads readers to expect that having dealt with the father’s illness, this might be a group of poems about place, travels and cultures: like the third section of The Hazards. But this section, too, seems, like the last, to be dragged towards the subject of the father. The second poem, although seemingly, by its title, about Pikes Peak, a mountain in Rockies, is really about the onset of her father’s illness, a mild stroke experienced while hiking there. The next poem, “Substantia Nigra”, looks at an X-ray or MRI of her father’s brain but it too is, in a sense, a poem about a place: here the centre of a human brain. There are other poems about the father’s travels and planned travels and they continue the sense of the father’s decline as a kind of black hole warping the spacetime of the poetry, forcing itself on to them so that what should have been poems about place and culture are distorted.

The only section which initially seems free of this distortion is the third where Holland-Batt deals with the other distressing aspects of emotional life, especially the failure of relationships. Even here, though, the father makes an appearance – or non-appearance, “Miles away / my father is disappearing” – in the poem “Alaska” where summer in New York and a partner’s story of how his friend’s father took his own life leads the poem to shift to the suicidal spawning run of salmon in the icy rivers of Alaska:

. . . . . 
I turn to you to say I blame them, these fathers
who do not wait to see us grow up
or what we make of their tyrannical love
but you’re silent, already sleeping,
and morning is coming on again, another morning. 

No need to point out the homophonic pun of the repeated word of the final line.

In this third section, although there is less of the intense verbal registration and the extended involved metaphors of other poems in the book, there is still a baroque, over-the-top quality about many of the poems. They aren’t, in other words, stony evocations of personal misery: the poetry is driven by a kind of hyperbolic exuberance. “Instructions for a Lover” is a good example of this playful baroque:

Bring me lemons and mint, a pitcher’s fishbowl
loaded with ice and slices of cucumber,

a Tom Collins in a tumbler, the fizz of it.
Give me sulphur summer heat, tarry sidewalks,

a tired hydrant geysering over the street,
a plane ticket to the Virgin Islands or Madrid . . .

One’s tempted to say that this might be what is asked of a poem rather than a lover but even this playful expansion of desires is constrained by a sharp finish: “and above all, take note of all the things I say – / pull me closer, push me away”. Another poem, “Ode to Cartier” has no such return to practicalities in its conclusion. A celebration of bling – “I want to be decked and set – / smoke rolling from my porte-cigarette, // plush as a leopard’s pelt . . .” – its finish – “let me die in peace // with the silk of a jaguar’s breath / huffing in my ear at dawn” – arrives at the animal of the book’s title, an animal that has gone through various modifications, including appearing as a car (a Jaguar XJ) which the poet’s father buys on impulse as is mind begins to become erratic. “Affidavit” is, like both these poems, a baroque extravagance of desire:

Fly me on a Lear jet to Antibes
          and lay me in state on a sunflower chaise.
Read me the rich list. I want to be chased
          with coconut oil and redacted
behind Jackie O shades . . .

We can also see the attraction to extended developments of hyperbolic metaphor in these poems, the kind of thing I looked at in “My Father as a Giant Koi”. “Parable of the Clubhouse” begins with a metaphor used at the end of a relationship – “When it ended, he said I had never let him in” – and opens this out in the most extended way possible:

. . . . . 
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
score of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons . . .

and so on. It brings me back to the issue of metaphor in Holland-Batt’s work, metaphor as something subject to the same intensifying and development as other features. In one of the poems, “On Tiepolo’s Cleopatra” – undoubtedly written with John Forbes’ great poem in mind – she imagines the reclining Cleopatra looking with contempt on the world Mark Antony brings with him:

. . . . . 
this is your idea of wealth, is this all it takes
to woo you, poor rubes, there is a land beyond metaphor
there are luxuries beyond empire’s comprehension – 
and to prove the point, I’ll swallow a pearl.

The notion of a “land beyond metaphor”, conceived as something a little more than saying that riches are a metaphor for true wealth, is an intriguing one from a poet whose use of metaphor is so complex and seemingly driven.