Jane Gibian: Beneath the Tree Line; Amanda Anastasi: The Inheritors

Beneath the Tree Line (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 88pp.)
The Inheritors (North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2021, 57pp.)

The author’s note which accompanies Jane Gibian’s Beneath the Tree Line begins by saying, “More and more I have become preoccupied with the natural world and our place in its increasingly precarious situation”. This together with the emphasis on those who will be stuck with our mess in Amanda Anastasi’s The Inheritors inevitably suggested their connection and a chance to round out, as it were, the emphases behind the books reviewed in my previous two posts. In fact, both books have more in them than an obsession with the cumulative toxic effects of the Anthropocene, Jane Gibian’s book, especially. Its five parts comprise five different perspectives on living which could be summarised, very crudely, as: living in the world, in language, in the digital age, the act of living in itself and living in the natural world.

Some of these poems, especially those of the opening and closing sections, are very fine lyrics often working by cross-breeding a couple of different approaches so that there is an air of conjunction about them. This might well be an extension into lyric meditation of the essential mechanism of the haiku, a form which Gibian has often used. For example, the first poem of the fourth section (which I have categorised as being “about” living itself), “Sound Piece”, is essentially about memories, that important part of any living that we do. Part of the dynamism of the poem comes from the way it focusses on sound memories and their interaction with visual ones. Indeed, it ends with a striking visual image:

. . . . . 
                             A lower drawer consists

of walking into threads of old spider webs, the distant
grumble of a bus arriving at last. This section
for sea creatures: the skeleton of a fossilised fish

with eerie blank eyes and slender barbel, rasp
of scales and the graduated spiral of a shell so
flawless we lean into the ocean’s hum. A stripe

of sunlight across our shins, leading to a shelf
that preserves the pang of a muted light
gleaming from the window of your last house.

Throughout the poem there are the kind of tensions between visual and sound memory which the reader will feel underneath this final section. The idea may be that, as human animals, we continually rate the visual sense above the aural one and that the tension between them can produce a fruitful dynamic for a poem. But there is also the strategy of organising the memories. We might have expected a straightforward list – I have written elsewhere of the interesting complexities and issues of any kind of list in a poem – where the refusal to organise the list in any obvious way is itself a structural device because it exploits tensions between a perceivable order and randomness. Here the memories are organised in terms of a “curiosity cabinet”, one of those weird pieces of furniture beginning in the seventeenth century in which mementos were stored. Such cabinets shock us by the way in which items are ripped out of any context but the virtue of this device poetically is that the memories themselves come to the author devoid of context. They are also wonderfully precise: “The next drawer / slides open to the sound of rain and the plinking // of flags blowing against flagpoles”. It’s an intriguing structure because it acknowledges the aleatory element of remembering while at the same time providing a framework. I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s marvellous The Memory Chalet in which, dying of ALS, unable to sleep or even move, he structures memories of his life (transcribed by an amanuensis during the next day) by assigning them a room in a hotel remembered from childhood. There’s nothing so desperate and extreme in “Sound Piece” but the complexities of the structure strengthen the poem making it – of course – a sound piece of work.

I’ve described the first section of Beneath the Tree Line as “living in the world” but it might be more accurately described as “living with the seasons”. Most of the poems engage in some way or other with subtle seasonal changes. The first poem, “Tilt”, describes that transition that all Australians understand between January and February. January, even for those with jobs, always seems a holiday, a slightly guilty extension of the relaxation of the Christmas to New Year week into the whole month that follows. But by the end of January all that is over: children have gone back to school, the cricket season is winding down, the tennis is over and people are beginning to think about the forthcoming football season. So the change to February isn’t so much a matter of registering subtle changes of temperature as subtle changes in the citizenry:

February, a cake fork fallen from the plate,
the sedate beat of bat wings
in the mango tree. We’re sewn into place

with work, seams restitched at the elbow,
the slow spread of January past, fading
the improbable flight of pelicans.

Only in January could the ample shell 
of a spider float from the cliff to settle
at our feet on the sand; before the scooter

of March gathers speed, a second-hand offer
spruiks wetsuit for tall thin man: the tilt
of the earth’s axis, the year tapped open.

But the conventional shift from January to February is not quite as innocent as it was in our youth. Seasonal change is one of the things affected by climate changes and Gibian’s poetry is especially sensitive to this. “Less Golden” plays with these seasonal changes, “It was in March, no it was April . . . when we noticed that each year / autumn is less golden”. And “Light Less Guarded” might have been used as an example of the doubled approach that I wrote about with regard to “Sound Piece” since it deals with seasonal change in a framework of playing a toccata on a keyboard – “the start of winter’s turning in the golden scent of those // flowers . . . light less guarded”.

These first poems are marked by their ability to register very subtle seasonal changes, but they also – in keeping with contemporary experience – have well-done sinister touches. The cake fork fallen from the plate, the first image in the first line of the book, might well be one of those sinister details, as might the beat of the bat wings and the shell of the spider. Gibian is really good at this particular version of sensitivity. I can remember a poem from an earlier book, Ardent, in which a description of the “harsh wind” of an October describes the way people on jogging machines at a gym move “up and down in waves, as if fleeing / something terrible, their faces grim masks”. Tilt and balance are no longer innocent words: they are part of that sinister notion of “tipping point” at which changes to the environment have an exponential effect rather than a gradual, linear one. A final point to observe in this first section is the frequent reference to streams of water, usually underground. I’m not exactly sure of its significance in poems like “Street of Hollows” and “Light Less Guarded” but there is no doubt it is not accidental. In the former it might be no more than a symbol of underlying fear – “a note // of dread trickles through the senses” – but it more likely refers to the burying of streams by “development”, and the way that such waters emerge as seepage.

I characterised the second section as containing poems about living in language but this group is actually a little more complex than this. Language has always been present in Gibian’s poetry but the perspective is quite distinctive. She concentrates on the experience of adult language-learning. We all admire and envy the situation of those who are polylingual from childhood but there is something very significant about learning a language as an adult when one’s mother-tongue is so ingrained that it is, essentially, how we conceive and express the world. The subtle changes that happen as this iron-hard matrix is painfully stretched (or, perhaps, dismantled) is exactly the sort of thing that an especially sensitive lyric poet will be interested in. In Gibian’s case there is a special interest because her second language is Vietnamese: a tonal language with very precise emphases unshared by an Indo-European language like English. “Double-jointed”, the first poem of the group, is a good description of, among other things, the way meaning is declared in the tones rather than the syllables:

In the mesh of a tonal language, there’s sound
slipping over furtive vowels; with it, meaning dragged
crookedly in its wake, a worn hem coming loose . . .

“Lash” is a good example of the double structure that I described “Sound Piece”. It’s both love poem and language poem: the opening line, “My dearest, the belly and the heart overlap here”, referring not only to a physical situation but to the fact that in Vietnamese the words for “belly” and “heart” express overlapping semantic fields (or, at least, I assume so. I wouldn’t want readers to think that I’m competent in Vietnamese). It’s not uncommon that reality is divided up for a language’s nouns in a different way to which it is in English. Words for colours, for example, can be puzzling: Old Icelandic seems to make no distinction between blue and black and the exact way in which the colour spectrum is divided up in Homer has often occupied scholars. At any rate it’s a conceptual challenge for people learning languages and just undermines the inherited way that their mother-tongue processes reality. “Lash” concludes by nicely tying together the language experience and the love experience, the latter by concluding the poem as a love-letter: “But in this language / of few tenses I remain lashed to the present, and yours always”.

“Earshot”, whose title puns on the idea of a person being assaulted by a language within hearing, is an attempt to speak about the subtle effects of learning a language as an adult through a process of immersion in the culture of the language. It is enticing, all-pervasive but also almost always beyond the grasp of the learner who has to go through a kind of linguistic version of “traveller’s syndrome”:

Language approaches from all
directions, with caresses & gestures
in the genial air, an earworm

burrowing into a brain sparking
with connection. Its ornaments
could be the servants of melody,

but it becomes evasive, whispering
just out of earshot & retreating indignantly
when you reach to clutch at words . . .

And, finally in this group, there is “In Slumber” which makes, behind the metaphor of a snow-covered landscape, a comment about the linguistic health of the world. Under the snow is silence, but plants which are in hibernation are like languages with only a few speakers and so on. It’s perhaps designed to be a reminder that linguistic extinction is as distressing a current problem as climate change and species extinction.

The central section of the book is very much about living in a digital/locked-down age. The mode here alters from the generally lyrical cast of the earlier sections to one of assemblage and “found” observations: “Seventeen Titles on the New Books Shelf: June-July 2019” will suggest the representative method of these poems. It’s not a mode that ever does much for me but I can respond to the fact that every age speaks for itself and in its own way and there is something attractive in the idea that the digital age should reveal itself in assemblages of, say, email responses and on-line reviews as happens in “Leftovers From a Pirate Party”. I think the most impressive poem of this group is the first, “Under the House”. It may be because, although it assembles, it avoids quotation. It begins with images of disturbance in the present and ends by capturing a sinister ambience brilliantly:

. . . . .
                                   Behind you
on the highway for some hours after,
a car with one dimmed headlight,
sinister in the early evening.
The light bulbs seem too bright for the light fittings
at your in-laws’ house. In the painting, the dark fleshy
leaves, almost purple-black,
curl inwards as if to meet
something craven in you.

The fourth section – introduced by “Sound Piece” which I have looked at already – is a little harder to pigeonhole than the previous three. If “Sound Piece” is about memory and how it can be organised, so is the second poem, “Recomposition”, a piece that seems to be essentially about how we relate as units to the some total of our memories, “a portrait assembled across / years”. But the later poems are about pregnancy: “nesting” and being a parent of small children. Again, though the subject is conventional, the treatment never is: a sign of a really worthwhile poet. I’m especially taken with the three “Nesting Songs” and with “Slipstone”, a fine rendition of the semi-delirious state induced by looking after the needs of a new-born:

Untrodden rhythms: the pace of your life
a tightly wound timepiece on short
rotation, slight distinction between darkness
and light, slipstone or clingstone, peach

or nectarine: thoughts verdant and ropey
twist in night colloquies . . .

If the first section of Beneath the Tree Line dealt with living in a domestic world of subtle and often sinister changes, the final section contains poems that address living in the “natural world” as it is more usually conceived. These are poems that involve getting out amongst the trees whether they are the mangroves accompanying a river that has been overtaken in its upper reaches by human habitation – “wilder here / than the subdued trickle through bricked-in / culverts” – or the angophoras of a southern tableland recovering from summer bushfires. Again, the overall tone is permeated with suggestions of threat so that the fascination (in “Further South” and “Restless”) with the complex way in which a forest regenerates always leads the reader to remember the human origins of the fires which had provoked this. One tricky poem, “Lip”, finishes with an image a river carrying a “curled raft of leaves” towards the lip of a waterfall, and this again is an image of threat even though the poem’s main focus seems to be on the inclinations and desires of the author. Another crucial, though not uncommon, tactic of these poems is to work on the inner/outer relationship plotting first one then the other as metaphoric, so “Lip” speaks of the “mind’s / unseen lake”. There are also inversions of perspective: in the significantly titled “Within” a journey inside a gorge reduces the observer to being a “smudge of red soil” or a “dry spiralling leaf of pandanus” and in “The Peeling” – which I have been reading as a poem essentially about writing poetry, or, at least, the status of the written word – the observing eye is merely that of a “warm-blooded animal” from a mosquito’s perspective and her hands are, nature fashion, nothing but “peripheries”.

If the sense of threat and dis-ease is an underlying theme of Beneath the Tree Line – running through it rather like the underground streams that seem so important in the first poems – it’s entirely on the surface of Amanda Anastasia’s The Inheritors, whose poems focus specifically on climate change. Its title provides a clue that its concerns are with conditions of life for those coming after us: our children and grandchildren. Its title, of course, repeats that of William Golding’s novel about the displacement of the Neandertals by modern humans and I wondered if this might not be a deliberate allusion, exploiting in some way that novel’s tragedy of a declining people faced with a bewildering change in their circumstances and unable to adapt to it. On reflection, I doubt if it’s the case, though, since there is nothing and nobody in these poems capable of allegorically representing the new species of that novel. Anastasi’s book is in two parts: the first part has poems which are set in the present but look forward while those of the second part are usually set sometime in the future. And this is a future whose intricacies the poet obviously enjoys exploring, one whose symptoms vary from messed-up breeding times in Greenland to reality TV programs in which a group of contestants have to survive not the jungle but the streets of Melbourne on a summer’s day.

Books dedicated to poems on a single theme are often ultimately uninteresting because repetition seems more irritating in poetry than it is in any other medium. The Inheritors avoids this by exploring as many ways as possible in which the single theme can be approached. Anastasi has a talent for the gnomic and this produces a series of poems in one-line stanzas which are spread through the book. It’s an attractive form since it blends compression with expansive development. There is also plenty of tonal variation and some poems – “Lady Returned”, whose vision of the future is of one with sex-dolls that ultimately prove unsatisfying, and the imaginary programs of “TV Guide” or the headlines of “2029 News Headlines” – are funny, even if grimly funny.

The framing poem for the first section, and, indeed, the book as a whole, “Newcomer”, makes no reference to the climate crisis. It is about a new baby and the way in which its future development – its initial socialisation and then its reaction against this in later years – can be plotted. But, of course, this baby will become an inheritor and so the subject is broached by omission. There is also a sense of the kind of shadowy dis-ease which is reminiscent of the early poems of Gibian’s book. You can see this is in “Parameters”, which describes living in an outer suburb of Melbourne and feeling at odds with the house – “I bump a hand or leg // against the corner of the bedside or kitchen table” – to the point of becoming more like “a temporary lodger”. The first of the poems with single line stanzas, “Monostich I: The Turn”, is interested in those decisive early markers of the onrushing change. It reminds me of the sensitivities of the first section of Gibian’s book as well. Certainly we would expect poets to be sensitive to internally registered markers of change that are missed by most of us. One of the single lines in this poem says: “The people of the sea are moving inland”. To someone who lives a couple of metres above sea level on a sand island, this resonates uncomfortably: an especially disturbing observation.