Thom Sullivan: Carte Blanche; Ella Jeffery: Dead Bolt

Carte Blanche [np], Vagabond Press, 2019, 69pp.
Dead Bolt Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2020, 111pp.

Two impressive and enjoyable first books whose similarities and differences go some small way to helping map out the possibilities of contemporary lyric poetry, especially in relationship to place. The accomplished poems of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche, for example, include pieces like “Moorlands” and “Hay Cutting” which apply what might be called visual lyric techniques to the rural landscape of South Australia. They exploit the always interesting tensions between compression and expansion, suggesting much in little and the general in the specific. “Hay Cutting”, for example:

Brown Hills shave back to corduroy
in the final hour of light.
On the hill-line a tractor rumouring on -
riding a wave of grass,

skirting knuckles of quartz
that punch through clay.
It comes and goes through nightfall -
a blazing white, low star.

There’s a lot to be said for this kind of poem: it fixes a scene brilliantly but has an imaginative wit and grace that a film (or photograph) of the scene would never have. There is quite a bit of this (what I am calling visual lyric) in Carte Blanche – other poems spaced throughout the book work similarly: “Idyll”, “Vigil”, “In Camera”, “Summer Dam” and so on. But such poems always come with an unstated personal component: some poets are always inclined to revert to a “home” landscape and some go so far as to see themselves as personifications of a particular place, an identity that can lead to an overblown sense of self-importance as though the poet were a kind of expression of terroir. The poems of Carte Blanche seem to me, however, to operate more on the oriental inflection of visual lyric: especially the poems of the great Tang masters, which are often built on a response to a foreign environment passed through in the manner of the “wandering” sage/poet, though rather than wandering, these poets are often making a point of visiting significant cultural sites. One of Sullivan’s poems, “Two Tanka”, overtly references this oriental model and its first poem, set “on the fabled Shenandoah” is at least true to the principle of representing a foreign, rather than a local, environment.

At any rate, a book filled with poems as good as “Hay Cutting” would be impressive but perhaps a little limited. What makes Carte Blanche engaging is that the poems explore the nature of “place-lyric” quite rigorously. Take the book’s first poem, “Threshold”, for example:

To drive out on a dark dissertation of road,
to walk awhile on its gravel shoulder.
A mopoke alights from a roadside tree: it is,
in its moment, weightless – a grace note of the if only,

of its existential absence. A tidal shift
in the wind over the paddocks. A fine grain of stars.
To stand on the threshold of this trespass,
memorising – as though it’s all you will recall.

It has the same visual acuteness as the poems I have mentioned: the way the wind moves over the grass (or grain) of the paddocks is “a tidal shift” and this is reflected in the “fine grain” of the stars of the night sky. But the underlying element is a personal one and it isn’t just a way of finalising and deepening a description, as it often is in the oriental tradition. The personal runs through and against the entire poem. I’m not sure exactly what this personal element is: most likely it’s a farewell either to a place or, less likely, a person. The tidal shift now reflects the state of the poet rather than simply the place and thus a sensitivity to liminal positions – common among lyric poets – gets internalised. The more I read “Threshold”, the more I find myself engaged by the title which has always seemed to me to be a misspelling as though the word for the place of crossing over has been shorn of one of its letters – it’s not an “old” where you stamp your feet but a “hold”, at least in my guesses about its etymology. In other words, it’s always seemed a word which enacts its own meaning: it can’t represent both sides of a door (“thresh” on one, “hold” on the other) but has to teeter, balanced on the doorstep itself. Fanciful, probably, but lyric poetry can get you that way! And then there’s that odd word “dissertation” in the first line, used as a metaphor for the road into the dark. On first reading it seems to be dangerously close to being precious, something good lyric poetry always avoids, but it’s clearly meshed into the personal component of the poem. It’s also matched in the first line of the second stanza by “existential absence” a most unusually abstract phrase which is, again, dangerously close to preciousness. Finally, there is that weird word, “trespass” applied to the road’s movement into the dark but also, of course, to whatever crucial decision the poet has made. It, too, is a nice choice since it exploits the word’s origins as yet another passing over – this time into illegal territory.

“Threshold” announces a kind of poetry fusing the visual with the personal in its own way. Many of the other poems of Carte Blanche could be read as ways of exploring how images can be joined and structured. One of the pleasures we take in the oriental lyric derives from the way the images are laid out, one after the other, without being enmeshed in hypotactic structures. The oriental lyric in English is an immensely complex issue, far beyond my competence, but either the originals, or the English language traditions of translating them (begun by Pound and Waley) create a sense of images which are simply presented and self-contained without having any of the tensions of disjunction that occur in European poetry: the peach blossom follows the moving water and there is a heaven and earth beyond the world of men. It’s easy to produce this effect in English but it can’t ever seem to be more than a pastiche. Many poems in Carte Blanche experiment with using colons and spaces. “Elaterid, Harbinger”, a poem about the subtle changes that announce the transition to a new season is an example:

a beetle enamoured with my lamp : a harbinger
of spring : as if the pear tree blossoming
on the footpath opposite was not enough :
or the budding persimmon : or the bottlebrush flowers
I didn’t notice till today : there’s evidence of spring
in abundance : the enduring dusk that’s holding
still : days that are shifting southwards : subtly :
to an alternate frame of evergreens : an alternate room :
throwing the first shadows on the eastern wall . . .

Here the units connected and separated by the colon are mainly items in a list but a more complex poem like “Suburban Panopticon” – “birds have their own topography : overlaid / on ours : which is vertical and detailed : / with its own system of needs : . . . ” – takes items out of what would normally be the matrix of argument – or at least statement – the kind of thing which is usually full of subordinate clauses. The importance of these experiments becomes clear when one reads a poem which deliberately avoids them. “Easter Morning” details the simple experience of moving into a forest, way from family who are “hunting eggs”. In the forest there is the experience of starting a bird and losing track of its rapid flight. Then the poet steps out of the forest and finds himself surprisingly close to the people he had left. There’s plenty going on here at the symbolic level: the date of the experience, a possible reference to Dante’s “dark wood” or to Alice’s entry into Wonderland, the sense of the mysterious, possibly transcendental, in the forest itself which is always only a step away from ordinary reality, and so on. But the poetic technique is quite unlike anything else in the book in that it is profoundly conventionally syntactic, beginning with the narrative cliché of a participle:

Walking down across
the paddock to the forest
I slid in a dimple
of dewy grass and sent
a sudden hare scuttling
from its hollow, down
across the open ground
to the tufted grass
at the threshold of
the forest . . .

In the context of the book this might be the most extreme experiment, perhaps to see if powerfully felt symbolic structures are enough to support a poem. “Easter Morning” is fascinating but a lot more like other poets’ poems than are those of the rest of the book. I prefer the distinctive approach of pieces like “Elaterid, Harbinger”.

In this series of experiments with the best way of dealing with images of place, there is also “Grampians Panorama, 4x6S” which mimics the way in which a series of photographs can be placed alongside each other to create a panorama moving from a road to a roadside shed, to the horizon and then, on the right “a wall of sheer haemorrhaging / cloud”. It’s an interesting effect and it ties in with a interest in photography that comes into a number of poems. It’s also not something available to the classic oriental poets although the eerily symmetrical blocks of the poems in their original script might have something of a similar effect. This isn’t a complete description of the experiments this book makes. Its title poem and a sequence called “Vox” try out rather different subjects and really couldn’t in any sense be about place; “Eden En Effet” is a kind of inverted version of Perec’s novel, this time using “e” as the only vowel, and “Jukebox” is an experiment with getting a more jazz-like syntax.

But finally, to return to the theme of place and the mode of oriental lyric, there is the longish sequence, “Memorial: Great Ocean Road, 2004” detailing a journey in the south. The emphasis is on significant objects and memorials though the first and last poems are mood pieces which bracket the journey. On first reading it seemed an odd series, not really in keeping with the interest in thresholds and subtle states that the other poems in the book are so good at. But, on rereading, I’ve decided to see it as an example of the other side of the classic oriental lyric: the tour to significant places. If Li Bei could travel over virtually the whole of China and, nearly a thousand years later, Basho over the deep north of Japan, it seems fitting that a good Australian poet should perform the same feat in our deep south.

One is tempted to make a spurious connection between Sullivan’s book and Emma Jeffrey’s Dead Bolt by beginning with the observation that many of her poems are set in the orient – in Shanghai to be specific. But in fact the two books could hardly be more unalike. Dead Bolt is anchored in personality and one of the (admittedly negative) strengths of the book is that it exploits this without ever being coy or cloying. There is always a strong sense of the author whether she is killing spiders, admiring the scaffolding around Shanghai, watching butter-bream on Stradbroke Island or staying with her parents. Another negative strength is the way the poems resist the diaristic: each poem has to have enough of a conceptual distinctiveness to stand on its own feet: and most of them do. “Buying Satin Dresses at Yu Garden” is built around its author’s bicycling. Early in the poem it is casually mentioned that she buys the dresses in passing, on her bicycle, “one foot grounded” and at the end of the poem “both my feet / are already off the ground”: it’s a simple but strong piece of poetic scaffolding. Another poem, “Pomegranate” tells of a friend who cut herself. A halved pomegranate reveals blood coloured seeds but at the end, when we are told that “she is almost through / the dark half of this year” we realise that hovering behind is the myth of Persephone, trapped for half of each year in Hades on account of having eaten six pomegranate seeds.

Not only in individual poems but in the book as a whole there are strong interests also sometimes staying quietly in the background. Obviously there is an interest in place but there is also an interest in time. “The Hotel Coronado” seems at first to be a poem about a famous Californian hotel but it is also something frozen in the questionable taste of its own time. An early poem, “Simon Schama’s The Power of Art” is, again, more about time than art as it spins out from the documentary’s use of the historical present, concluding, “Perhaps it’s lucky I’m still here / in these rooms / in the present tense”. This might also go some way towards explaining the importance of the series of poems, spread throughout the book, on van Eyck paintings. The resonances they have lie in the way the paintings fix a weird past and bring it into a present. There is also a good poem about the poet’s partner reading The Iliad. The poem doesn’t say that this happens in Shanghai though the position of the poem in the book makes this likely. At any rate it’s a case of bringing something alien in both time and place into a different time and a different place. As a result of these structures, interests and complexities, Dead Bolt is quite a compelling first book. Personality on its own isn’t enough to sustain a poetic career but there is a lot more here that promises good poems in the future.