Judith Bishop: Interval

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.
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
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.

Judith Bishop: Event: Poems

Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007, 68pp.

Judith Bishop’s brilliant first book, Event, appeared last year and if I’ve taken some time writing about it, it is because there is a lot to absorb and it doesn’t metabolize easily. Event has a quality shared by other first books (John Tranter’s Parallax comes to mind) of being highly organized while, at the same time, being composed of different sorts of poems.

There is almost a defensive quality about this, as though the author felt that it was imperative to pre-empt any descriptions involving the word “grab-bag”. It is divided into four sections with a single poem “Interval” in the middle. Allotted to different sections are poems which clearly belong (in the sense of “were written”) in groups. These include the poems about paintings and some prose poems about relationships – all are broken up and dispersed throughout the book. Even the central narrative sequence about Cortes’ translator and mistress in the conquest of Mexico is spread across three of the sections, as though Dona Marina found her life turning up in the pages of different books. The variety of poems makes it a really difficult book to feel confident about because the reader is challenged not only by a variety of interests but also by a variety of modes.

One tactic is to step back and take a distanced, impressionist view. The common themes of these poems turn out to be love, loss, betrayal and language. At a slightly higher resolution, the things the poems seem sensitive to, and are animated by, include: visitations and arrivals (the latter being the former seen from a different perspective), links between micro and macro perspectives, and links between the animal world and the human.

Event opens with two stunning poems, either of which is enough to ensure that this is a book to be taken very seriously. The second of them, “Desert Wind”, describes an urban winter landscape which, in a powerful and (to the reader) unexpected transformation, becomes something like a painting of a
desert scene:

High, bright winter morning: the tenement’s tree-antlers
clatter on each corner and the stepping black spines are smooth
and glossy as mirages; framed, the scene shines as if transported to a desert,
and never (since this winter day will not end hereafter, having left
the field of time), will the trees
flicker leaves again or carry broods of flowers . . .

The scene may be out of time but it doesn’t preclude the book’s first “arrival” – a “random bird” which

           alights, hoarse-throated after days of luckless questing
for a moth or a spider that has cellared spring rains in its body, so honeying
the juices of itself . . .

Later in the poem a snake arrives, searching for dead hummingbirds. The poem finishes on a note of optimism when “a human voice” (most likely the lover’s but, considering the ambiguities of “yours”, conceivably the poet’s or even the reader’s) rises “like a yam tendril” to animate the objects of this strange tableau. But it is the two birds of “Desert Wind” that I want to stay with.

There are birds everywhere in Event. The book’s second section has, pretty well, one per poem. In a description of Rembrandt’s “Presentation in the Temple” they figure as a simile which concludes a poem in which we don’t expect birds to appear at all “As the child’s foot stutters / like a just-fledged bird”. But the shock of the simile matches the shock of the birth of the divine child: one disturbs the poem, the other the universe. Birds seem symbols of arrivals from different dimensions. Many other poets are, pre-eminently, poets of annunciation in that they have imaginations strongly moved by the arrival of messengers (usually angels) from other worlds. The best of such poets don’t simply let the matter rest there though. Bishop wants to explore the origins of the arrivals, their perception of the new world and the result of the clash of the worlds that the bird bridges.

Which is a clumsy segue to the central narrative poems of Event, the sequence devoted to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, seen from the point of view of the Nahuatl/Mayan/Spanish speaker who accompanied Cortes as guide and mistress, most notably at his entrance into Tenochtitlan. The arrival of the Spanish is, of course, from the Aztec perspective, the arrival to end all arrivals: it simply puts an end to their empire. I’ve always thought of it as an example (like the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem) of a consistent, mythically-oriented culture suddenly being confronted by wider perspectives: in other words, reality or history or the world comes visiting. There are birds everywhere in this story: Montezuma identified the Spaniards with Quetzalcoatl the bird-serpent god whose return they awaited (no accident, then, that the two arrivals in “Desert Wind” are a bird and a snake). In the first poem of this eight poem sequence, Dona Marina (as a child) breaks the neck of a hummingbird which has been ejected from its nest. One of the great things about reading Event is that it made me read Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Aztecs: An Interpretation, and I owe to that book knowledge of the fact that, in their afterlife, brave Aztec warriors returned to earth incarnated as hummingbirds or butterflies. So, symbolically, Dona Marina destroys the warrior tradition of the Aztecs. Marina’s Nahuatl name means “grass” and in the third poem she imagines the gods arriving like winds:

Something builds across the skies today: a bent
to which the maize submits. These are the wind
bridges which the gods may use to visit us.
If they should come to break us,

I’ll desire them, I’ll arch. Grass is
as grass does . . .

The ferocity of the Aztec’s pantheon of gods makes them unusually pliant in the face of the invaders.

Arrivals require translators since an arrival can also be a linguistic irruption. One of the themes of this book is the way language betrays: it forms much of the material of the poems of the third section. It is fitting then that the final act of Dona Marina’s poem is an act of betrayal. An old woman offers to marry Marina to her son and lets slip that a revolt is being prepared in Cholula. Marina betrays the revolt to Cortes, provoking the famous massacre.

Birds are also associated in this book with scale. Many of the poems relate to the idea of a double perspective. The bird’s eye view (I did try not to commit that pun) is contrasted with a sensitivity to the world at a micro-level. The fourth poem of the book, the very fine “It Begins Where You Stand”, moves like a camera lens (or flying bird’s view) from the speaker to a small bird tapping on a window pane. This bird has a message but it is not about history or betrayal: it is about the intuition of the macro-event:

. . . . .
As the boy groans, the cardinal morse-codes her intuition
that the wind, within the hour, will have turned
toward the east;
and spawned a tornado in its wake

In “Vertigo” a blackbird arrives, “swooping out of her alarm”. “What is scale?” the poem asks, why does someone anxious to welcome “injured dogs, and kids / who come with bloodied knees” not respond to the far larger scale disasters of the world occurring at a pitch “lower than the melodies / familiar to your bones”?

The book, as a whole, wants to push us towards expanding the range of the signals we can absorb. There are three poems (also spread throughout the book) which signal their relatedness by having their titles in inverted commas. The first of them, “’And the Clouds Cleared the Sky . . .’” describes another desert wind. This wind is an arrival that does not touch the world of objects but alters our perspective of them:

. . . . .
                                        and the high,
efficient winds didn’t lift a dried leaf

or brush a sparrow’s wing, but caused a white dress and pine table
(white pine, the table dressed) to shine much more acutely, just as if

each form exploded and reformed, or blurred its outline then
resharpened at a higher resolution; or as if our

resolution was a matter of the light, or the timing of those changes
no-one owns, but all absorb . . .

The last of these three poems is the final poem of the book, “’The Chords of Snow Melting . . .’” Although I’m not sure that I understand the last line – which signals the author’s stake in the poem – there is no doubt that the bird has a hyper-sensitivity to the infinitely microscopic. And like the bird of “It Begins Where you Stand”, the bird which is introduced to share this poem with the humans can intuit the macro in the micro:

The chords of snow melting are unheard, perhaps, by any but the bird,
attuned with all its body

to the sawings of a grass blade or a seed falling from its flower head,
meaning danger, or future,

or the wind slowly gathering in force.
But see the snow – how in melting, it clarifies.

A pitch, low or high, must be sung by water molecules uncoupling
small attractions, gaining force and mutual distance.

Restless one, I know.
The songs we’re singing are as clear.

Other poems from Event focus on this juxtaposing of the human world and the animal world. “Rabbit”, which I first met in Judith Beveridge’s The Best Australian Poetry, 2006, takes a fresh look at this trope asking from the rabbit help in the task of reclaiming the animal in the human:

. . . . .
Rabbit, laid ragged at the fold of day’s field, where the sparrow-hawk stretched
the star’s scarf across her wing: with your velvet heart, you occupied
the blood’s old theatre: with your hushed ballet of spring, you
performed the coiled rites you have taught us tonight: showed our ropes of matter cut
by the one puppet-master, hanging in his own winds.

Another, lesser, poem, “The Birds Reported from the South”, reminds us that the hyper-sensitive world of the bird is one we can acknowledge but that ultimately there is a distance between us, even though we like to believe we are travelling in the same direction:

. . . . .
A briefly mutual gaze is the whole of our acquaintance,
my high-minded gull, my dear, quixotic mynah:
our eyes betray a knowledge of rigidity onstage,
then you turn away softly, to toss a twig or blade.

Hail, red-eyed pigeon; prancing sparrow, hail.
Tonight we file together, at some distance, to the show.

Birds and winds come from above, of course. And there is a strong sense in Event of the disposition of things on a vertical scale. The gods, in other words, do come from above rather than from the side. One of the painting-poems, “Sorretto da Quattro Angeli”, imagines the deposition as a falling from divinity to humanity and matches it against a young man suiciding by jumping out of a window during the Kosovo war. And a complicated poem, “Threnody”, begins with a mirror on a rubbish dump reflecting the blue sky and briefly connecting the lower with the upper worlds. In two poems, bees are trapped by surface tension and die by slowly giving up their body warmth to the lower world of the sea.

In this review I’ve dealt only lightly with the personal drama that underlies so many of these poems. I’m not being especially tactful here, it is more a result of an interpretive nervousness. No-one minds making a mistake about an author’s conception of, say, the animal world, but one doesn’t want to make a mistake about an author’s emotional life! Three of the prose poems are vey much about this, but “The Indifferent”, “Definition of a Place” and “Epistles” all share a sensitivity to what might be called the schematics of place: there are horizontal axes to be observed as well as vertical ones. In the first of these, the author walks the middle ground of the littoral between the low-tide sea and the high-tide detritus of “gull bones and cuttlefish blades” and in the second the lovers are at the bank of a creek with a bridge above them “holding up the shallow arc a bomb of swallows pitched under”. “Epistles”, the third, is the most complex of them but its opening – which unites virtually all of the things I have been speaking about – emphasises its importance:

Birds, insects plummet through our days like meteors, visitations, breaking the immutable glass fixed upon our sight by sunlight. It’s then we see the planets most vividly, through those quick breaches in the air: we see how terribly far from us they are. You, do you come closer to me than these falling wings, do you come, are you there, am I yours, in your own transparent orbit?

The poem finishes with a final arrival from above, a leaf which must be put on the stream and sent, against “the one direction of life”, up the stream towards the source.

As I said in opening, these poems seem to have been written over a long stretch of time. Moreover they seem (and it is only a reader’s impression) to have been written in small, consistent batches. One of the common features of first books is that they collect work from a far longer period than any subsequent book and so there is a kind of archeology involved in reading them. Bishop’s poems, at least on the evidence of those selected and arranged in Event, are very consistent in their interests and sensitivities. And these sensitivities – to arrival, to the layout of space, to translation (a word deriving from a spatial metaphor) – are engaging and rich in poetic potential. You want to see a second book, quickly.