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.

Sarah Holland-Batt: Aria

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008, 62pp.

In the last few years Australian poetry has seen a number of exciting debut collections and Sarah Holland-Batt’s Aria is another that can be included in that happy genre. In fact it is a knockout collection and this came as something of a surprise to me since I had met only a few of the poems in journals when preparing for our annual Best Australian Poetry anthologies and, when seen in their journal incarnation, they were far too disjointed to show a reader how they wanted to be read.

For a first book Aria is very coherent despite the fact that it is full of different modes. The poems seem to be strung between two poles. There is an overwhelming sensation of lost love and grief which drives the poems towards brevity and stasis and, at the other extreme, a kind of escape into longer poems which inhabit the sky rather than the ground. I’m immensely taken with these more optimistic, freer, longer works. Their mode is operatic and rhapsodic and it is no surprise that the book’s major cultural references are late-high-romantic: Rachmaninov, Puccini and Mahler. Hence also the abrupt title, Aria.

We meet the conjunction between loss of love and stasis as early as the book’s second poem, “Shore Acres”. It’s a powerful piece:

. . . . . 
But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;
the water is static as land, and stripes
of foam bone its slate like a corset.
We are here for the end of movement.
You stay to watch the ocean. I go back
to the Japanese garden . . .

One of the impressive things about this poem is the way it embeds exhaustion into the movement of the poem itself and it does this while retaining the generally enjambed style that, in other, different poems, keeps the whole thing moving quickly. Even the book’s epigraph from The Cherry Orchard, “I know that happiness is coming, Anya, I see it already”, subtly associates happiness with movement.

In an odd way, loss of love and the resultant state of psychic depression are unpromising material poetically. They are potent, resonating experiences but that is all: they don’t encourage verbal coruscations, for example, the way a rhapsodic response to the natural world can. They can result in a continual grinding down which produces a poetry which is spare to the point of being minimalist. This is reached, I think, by a three line poem, “Laughter and Forgetting”:

We have no name for this wilful happiness.
We just wake to it every morning, in love,
but one always loving the other a little less.

It’s a small brilliant piece, balancing happiness and grief, but one couldn’t make a whole poetry out of this mode. I think “Letter to Robert Lowell” is an attempt to resolve this difficulty. It’s an act of mimicry, overtly copying the Lowell of “Skunk Hour” and “Night Sweat”. The last two stanzas will give some idea of it:

The traffic crawls toward the Tower Mill.
Two o’clock: in my left temple
a migraine builds: jots
and temporary sketches
skid across my field of vision,

two white dots conjoined, twinning
like the searchlights they raked
the river with last night.
A suicide. The man
couldn’t swim, and washed in with the tide.

If I had to guess what was happening in this poem, I would say that Holland-Batt, by briefly inhabiting the poetic method of Lowell (a method in which a diseased mind imposes itself on the environment, isolating stories and sites of misery) allows pain into a poem without the movement towards stasis that this usually involves. In fact the movement is towards baroque elaboration. I said that it was an act of mimicry: it might be more accurate to say that it is borrowing the mode of a vastly different writer and trying it on (perhaps with a wry apology to its owner) as though it were a coat. Something similar happens in “Not a Life, But Like One” which looks like an imitation of one of the Americans (James Wright, Galway Kinnell?) who do wintry stoniness well: “Lights over the bridge. The coldest wind. / And a little rain straining to make itself heard / on the way down to the river.”

Interestingly, “Francesca in the Second Circle” seems, by introducing Dante’s notion of Hell, to contradict the poet’s overall scheme because the essence of the punishment of the lovers is that they do move: they run before the dark wind which symbolizes the passions they were damned for. Paradise is the static place and Hell (or at least its upper reaches) is a place of miserable movement. The poem makes sure that it harmonizes with the overall scheme of things by emphasizing – as Dante does – that the movement is circular. And so, as I read it, Francesca prefers the continuous and cyclic revisiting of misery which is a kind of stasis. She, after all, is the one who famously says, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in times of misery” and I like the idea that this might hint that her depressed state remorselessly forces her to revisit the good times like probing a bad tooth.

Two poems, “Late Aspect” and “The Art of Disappearing” are about one of the results of stasis in that the poet gets subtracted from the entire scene. At least this is what seems to happen in the former poem where the objects of existence remain but they are no longer animated by a perceiving human presence – rather as in Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode”:

As for the veranda: it is empty.
A windchime sieves the air, and the cicadas
emerge like metal stars.
The night is preoccupied with its own story:
the unpainted ladder flush against white
weatherboard; a curl of dry duct tape spiralling
from the tennis racket like an apple peel;
the fierce, unfilled shadow eclipsing the hammock.
This evening I have abandoned the possibility
my questions will be answered in a voice
I can understand, and but for my present
outlines I disappear, my face covered
by the haggard, smoky sky; the garden, the night
ringing with the sawing pulse of insects, that unison
for which there is no human word.

I really like this poem because it is so intelligently intense: it is a long way from a howl of misery. In its almost dispassionate look at what is going on among the objects of the world the world during grief, it reminds me of John Scott’s great poem, “’Changing Room’” which finishes:

She’s leaving; and the similes are gone.
A borrowed room, and everything quite suddenly
and only like itself: this coat, this coat.
          This floor, this floor.

Then there are the longer poems. These are not consistently or simply rhapsodic but what is happening in them is very different. I think they all share a freedom of poetic movement and this movement itself gives the impression of a freer poetic imagination. Of course, in “Rachmaninov’s Dream”, the composer dreams his dream – simultaneously of the lost past and the frightening future – while composing the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini so this poem is literally in a rhapsodic milieu.

I think the most important of these longer poems is “Remedios the Beauty” a sort of dramatic monologue from the point of view of Garcia Marquez’s famous levitating washerwoman. It is hard to resist a reading of it which makes it an allegory about the writing of the very poems I am speaking about. In this reading Remedios’ flights are the poet’s flights as she explores the freedoms of composition in an extended mode. What is striking are the unpredictable twists and turns of the poem which can thus symbolize the freedoms in this all-movement mode. Look at the first dozen lines, for example:

Levitation is easy. I am at home
with the peregrines; I move
in their registers, where each small kindness - 
a quick kill, mercy – passes, weightless
and unremarked. Gusting thermals bring
me parallel to the sky’s cusp, papered
and insubstantial as a sucked egg.
Here, time rounds its edges through wires
of nimbus. It could be years. The names
of small things – animals, stones – flake
away, fish splintered from the spine,
the jacket lifting, curled and loose.
My body comes into a new lightness.
Surrounded by snow, water washing
water then thawing it, letters fall 
in the drifts, the crystalline seraphs
dissolving into a vast dark stretch . . .

And so on, including revisiting earth. As I’ve said, it seems a poem which celebrates the freedoms possible in its own making. And the continuous enjambments of Holland-Batt’s style mean not so much that we misread lines as that two separate meanings can run concurrently. So in the first line, Remedios is home (in her grandmother’s house on earth) and by the second she is home in the sky.

We always search, in the work of a new poet, for a “poem-poem”, a poem which works as a kind of allegory of what the author thinks a poem is. “Remedios the Beauty” might well fill that role in Aria, but so might a small poem, “Materials”, which appears in the middle of the book:

I am trying to understand memory,
how it is that after all the falling and failing
these floorboards still sing. Woodsmen
sounded this cedar so the emperor could sleep,
and each mournful creak has carried
centuries. So my feet practise
a broken music scored for his enemies.
The men who built these halls understood:
best not to think it will last forever.
House the emperor in paper and wood.

Unfortunately, it is one of those frustrating poems that you suspect are perfectly straightforward from the author’s perspective but which elude a reader’s grasp. There is a reference to the “nightingale floors” which Japanese carpenters built deliberately so that they would squeak when used: this was a security device that made it difficult for an assassin to approach the Emperor, though what it did for the sleep of the Emperor himself, I’m not sure. One way of reading the poem is to respond to the author’s initial admiration for the fact that these things still work after several hundred years: you house Emperors in wood and you house memories in poems and, if you are lucky, those poems will resonate down the years, still working for casual visitors years from now. Or we could focus on the fact that the author comments that her walking on the floors is exactly what the enemies of the Emperor do. If we allegorize the Emperor as memory then the poem might be saying that the only way memory can be approached is through processes that are inimical to it. That would make it a much bleaker poem, epistemologically: the approach to experience destroys the experience. I’m not sure.

Back to the abrupt title. Are there any other books of Australian poetry with such a small (four letters) title? It’s the kind of question which, in a civilized country, might occupy pundits on a TV program. There turn out to be (according to a quick search in my shelves) a number of five letter titles (Anna Couani’s Italy, Kris Hemensley’s Trace, Philip Hammial’s Swarm, for example) but as far as I can see only two other five letter titles: Judy Johnson’s Jack (Pandanus Books, 2006) and Philip Roberts’ Crux (Island Press, 1973). At any rate, it’s obviously important to the author that the book should choose something that represents the more optimistic reach of the binary. The first time I read it, I thought that “the end of movement” – or even “here for the end of movement” (a phrase from the book’s second poem) – might be a better, because more striking, title but that would only have reflected the bleaker component of Holland-Batt’s vision.