North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2018, 78pp.
Jennifer Harrison’s excellent new book continues the evolution of her complex and challenging vision, challenging because an unusual set of perspectives is brought to bear on conventional subjects such as personal illness, grief and the planet’s prospects for the future. And it isn’t just a matter of her scientific background: throughout the earlier books there were poems documenting and exploring a continuing fascination with something as abstruse as commedia dell’arte. Here there are batches of poems exploring aspects of photography and a set of animal poems which read almost as a catalogue of the different ways in which a subject can appear in a poem.
Interestingly, Anywhy begins with two poems which are, in their own different ways, about creativity. “Provence” finds her attending a protest march by artists in the French city complaining about actor’s wages – “I wave the flag I’m given”. The second stanza introduces an Australian two-cent coin with its iconic frill-necked lizard and its defensively erect quills. In a sense, the significance of the juxtaposition is clear: an Australian, in a foreign environment, still reacts to a sense of threat in a distinctively Australian way – “What trepidation / catches inside me somewhere primitive / and old . . .” But it’s a feature of Harrison’s poetry that the contexts in which poems are embedded – the interests and obsessions – spin the meanings out far beyond their obvious surfaces. The march of the French protestors – the theatrical who protest over the comparatively minor issue of more equitable wages theatrically as well as good-naturedly (“the grand square laughing now, bright with pique”) – is a reminder of Harrison’s extensive interest in the theatre of the commedia dell’arte. And just as there is a counterbalance here with things Australian, so there is in her earlier poetry which, as well as celebrating the complexities of the Mediterranean tradition, also celebrates contemporary street theatre, strolling musicians and even a figure from her past, the gypsy Moss Wickum, capable of sleight-of-hand tricks and of throwing “shadows / on a fibro wall: a rabbit, a parakeet, a giraffe”. And then, in “Provence”, there is the sinister night:
. . . . . here the scent of the night-to-be hovers over art guile, music-work and theatre poverty . . .
In other words – as I read it – the dark future reveals itself even in such a comparatively benevolent setting. The devil can smile.
“Fungi”, which follows, is quite a different kind of poem. Instead of working by seizing on the revealing symbolic connections between events – being at a protest and accidentally finding a two-cent coin in one’s pocket – it works by turning over the symbolic possibilities of mushrooms and the way they can act as symbols of poetry itself, digesting experience but producing something strong if vulnerable. It’s a symbol that’s been worked over many times and Harrison can only make the poem interesting by bringing fresh complexities, fresh issues to the table. She does this in a number of ways (the use of the word “fugue”, which can be traced as both a theme and a structuring principle in her earlier poetry, is immediately interesting) but the conclusion seems to me especially notable. Though “Fungi” is very different to “Provence”, it shares the same interest in art in the face of the bleak possibilities of the future:
. . . . . Night pins my species to essence, to tasks of the sleeping word and like a rough leaf released by autum I settle into presence, the desk now impractically a diminution . . . There is no ending to shadow, to the nature that explains us to the deep earth and earth to our past - our present poison.
I think the sense of these last lines is that our shadows in the present symbolise what we are to the earth (a black stain) and that the shadows that the Industrial Revolution has cast, two centuries ahead, have become “our present poison”.
I’ve said that these first two poems are about creativity, even if creativity in a threatened environment. We can extend that to three if we include the epigraph to the entire book, a passage from Peter Porter’s difficult poem (almost all Porter poems are “difficult”), “Meanwhile”:
. . . Meanwhile we lie down with words, shaped into silence or thronging to accuse. Our only health is to be moved by movers, hearing in stark quiet the order to conduct the once-living through our lives.
This at least strikes a more positive note about the significance of poetry and its demand – if read properly – that we should change our lives or, at least, offer a sort of inventory of them to the creative geniuses of the past. But it’s shadowed by the bleak world that Porter’s poetry usually inhabits.
The unending shadow is an important issue in “Nine Doors: A Curriculum of Rune Work”, an extended piece which, perhaps humorously, is organised as a course of nine doors opening onto issues of the present. (Why this should be “Rune Work” I’m not sure, but as an amateur scholar of Old Norse, I’m always intrigued by the uses and misuses of the word “runes” in contemporary discourse). It certainly has the sense of – to adapt Les Murray – nine points for an imperilled planet. At any rate, the first poem of the sequence, dedicated to Jil Meagher, is about the conventional dangers of “the night” in any city – as the fifth poem says, “where the town begins night begins”. Other poems focus not on human violence but on ecological catastrophe. There is entirely personal grief in many of the poems of Anywhy and the third of this series is about how the dead call to us:
from safe suburbs they are calling from seas where heroes oar in parallel from boats that sail safely past the wailing danger the Sirens are calling from the darkness said to brood within an epic’s reedy falter from the lore of lies and rocky sighs of legend the Sirens are calling . . .
(this makes a nice pun on the German water sprite and counterpart to the Greek Sirens, the Lorelei). But there is also here a positive note I think since the poem speaks of a song “that calls me back to myself”, an internal equivalent of the song of the Sirens. Whether this “song” is creativity in general or some specific mantra, I’m not sure, but I still read it as a positive comment and thus connect it to the last of these nine poems which is about “my son”. Here, at least, is a male presence in a world in which, other poems tell us, father and brother have died. He is also someone who will experience whatever the future brings more intensely than the poet since the future will belong to him and anyone else of his age group:
. . . . . and when we pass each other a small mysterious smile don’t come too close it says I am Orion the hunter the king the first iron of art Such umbered voice such trouble-free deep human I hear him calling sometimes but not for me in his sleep
It’s difficult to be confident about the tone here. It could be read negatively as a portrait of someone who may become a hard man for a hard age. But I think, rather, that there is a sense of satisfaction in having brought up someone who is now, inevitably, living his own life and who seems capable, if anybody is, of surviving the future. And this sense of optimism, balancing the messages of the dark, seems to be the burden of the book’s final poem, “The Tent” (again, an image which suggests, if only remotely, a tradition of circus performance). The poem recounts sleeping under a tent and – recalling the words of “Fungi”, “the desk now // impractically / a diminution” – speaks of an ability from childhood to make oneself smaller so that “when the noise of the world // overruns the camp / I am safely camouflaged”. But at night – that ubiquitous time/metaphor/metonym –
. . . . . when clothes lie fallow and audiences drift away I see the soaring dirty lid of canvas open and the stars arranged in a show unparalleled
This balance between dark and light is one of the recurring themes of Anywhy and is reflected in the structures of the poems themselves. On the surface, one of the cosmically bleakest poems, “Grand Final”, does have intimations of hope and it is followed by “Naos of the Decades” of which the same could be said. The former makes its point by radical shifts of perspective: it begins with the couple passing time in an airport while a television in the background is showing what must be a Rugby Union grand final. But “grand final” in this poem also means the end of things from an apocalyptic point of view and the poem quickly shifts into a wider perspective by a modulation dependent on the birds at the airport which have been replaced by aeroplanes – mechanical birds:
. . . . . Long before birds knew their own names anywhen asterisk skyscar there existed black space, dark matter the first stars flaming into being . . .
When the poem revisits the couple at the airport they are now fully allegorised so that the departure lounge is a “Grand Final waiting room” where the human race awaits its fate, “sipping cold beers // flipping iPhones to silent”. The poem seems to suggest that the final destination is not necessarily the dark, just somewhere completely unknown, “somewhere we didn’t realise we wanted to go”. “We trust the wind will carry us”, it says – perhaps an allusion to Kiarostami’s film – but wherever, it will carry us forward. “Naos of the Decades” is a poem about personal grief – the loss of father and brother – built around one of the finds from the Nile Delta, a block of granite recording the division of the year into ten-day periods, each begun by a cleansing from evil:
. . . . . Each rising was thought to eliminate evil: an antidotal astrology drowned beside the Royal Decree of Sais the Black Queen, the Hapi Colossus, ibis mummies . . . No single epitaph here, all loss is silence, antiquity and inside memory a shard of granite remains . . . Grief does not belong to my century, my mouth . . . It does not float to the sea’s surface, or rise unbidden from sea or silt . . . But today it is mine: my relic, my find
Not a conclusion where one feels entirely comfortable about the tone. In my tentative reading, this is a poem about searching for “an epitaph”, something solid and lasting which either “contains” the loved one or provokes memories in the reader. The Naos Calendar contains no such individual epitaphs but stands for something solid (and benevolent) in the memory, a personal relic.
Personal suffering, rather than personal grief, is the subject of “The Exchange, Blackwood Village”, a complex poem about the author’s experience of cancer (documented in the 1999 volume, Dear B). As in “Grand Final” the scene is set with birds, a group of species which in this book, especially in “The Inner Life of Birds”, represents a more immediate response to reality than humans can manage as well as being symbolic harbingers. The brush with Death leaves something inside that can’t be completely got rid of – as cancer can never be entirely defeated:
. . . . . Death found my measure in its pill of greed and I carry the taste inside like a baby, never to birth more a memory to protect, a shape almost precious . . .
The poem’s real interest – and what makes it more interesting than a conventional recording of illness and trauma – is in the nature of the exchange made between poet and death. The “taste inside” is a kind of gift of nothingness and the central question is: what is required in exchange? It’s not a simple poem and the conclusion is complex at several levels:
For nothing, more than nothing . . . For birds, sky . . . For a clock, more than time . . . For anywhere, anywhy.
In each case the offered gift in exchange must outweigh the original gift, as the sky is greater than the sum total of birds and all the possible explanations (the “anywhy’s”) must outweigh all the possible places. Since the poem says, at an earlier point, “I’ve given back to nothing // less than I’ve borrowed”, this might well suggest that, in the future, some larger price may have to be paid to keep the correct balance: in that case this becomes a bleaker poem than it initially seems.
Meaning in these poems is extremely sophisticated, as one might expect, and the questions they ask and the possibilities they explore are unusual and challenging. Anywhy is in no way a simple book but its complexities are tonal too. Many of my readings of these fine poems revolve around trying to get an accurate sense of tone and that is often a more problematic activity than devoting oneself to meaning. I might have misread the tone of many pieces but there is little doubt that overall one of the dynamic drivers of these poems is the interaction between dark and light. Not quite in the Bruce Beaver sense of simultaneously celebrating and mourning, more in a Jennifer Harrison sense of viewing the future with optimism and despair.