Judith Beveridge: Devadatta’s Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2014, 65pp.

To someone picking the book up in a bookshop, Judith Beveridge’s Devadatta’s Poems is a set of forty-eight dramatic monologues spoken by the Buddha’s cousin, a disruptive and discordant voice in the years after the awakening when the membership and rules of the Buddha’s mendicant order, the sangha, are being worked out. Dedicated readers of Australian poetry will respond to it as what looks like part of an ongoing project by one of Australia’s great poets which begins with “The Buddha Cycle” at the end of Accidental Grace, published nearly twenty years ago, and continues in the long sequence “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” in Wolf Notes, published just over ten years ago.

The relationships between these three works need a bit of teasing out and I don’t want to back myself into the familiar corner of being an outsider puzzling over literary issues that have a single, simple answer. My guess is that “The Buddha Cycle” is an early attempt to engage this material. It wants to deal with sanctity rather than, say, the idea of the Buddha as a model of poetic perception, and sanctity is a very difficult state to incarnate in poetry. The tactic Beveridge uses is to focus on its effects rather than its essence by dealing with the lives of a group of characters who are influenced by the Buddha. It works well and reminds me that Ashvaghosha’s very long poem, The Life of the Buddha, written a good six centuries after the event but an important document nevertheless, seems to flicker briefly into life in the tenth canto when the same tactic is used. The Buddha is about to enter Rajagriha:

Whoever was going by another way stood still,
whoever was standing on that road followed him,
whoever was going fast began to walk slowly,
whoever was seated sprang up, upon seeing him.

Some venerated him with folded hands,
some in honouring him bent down their heads,
some greeted him with affectionate words,
no one went by without worshipping him.

Those who were pompously dressed felt ashamed,
those chattering on the road fell silent upon seeing him.
No one had an improper thought,
as if they were in the presence of dharma in visible form.
                                 (trans. Patrick Olivelle, Clay Sanskrit Library edition)

The evidence that “The Buddha Cycle” is not to be seen as a failed, initial attempt to deal with this sort of material, sidetracked into trying to express sanctity rather than the acute awareness of a poet, is that the characters of “The Buddha Cycle” turn up briefly in one of the poems of this new book – “The Buddha at Uruvela” – where Devadatta is infuriated by the expressions on the faces of the cast from “The Buddha Cycle”:

. . . . . 
And look at Sunita, the street-sweeper, smiling
as if the Buddha has offered him a life above

the scorn of insects, a life of refinements
other than dust. Look how Suppaya, the corpse bearer,
beams, as if from now on he’ll make compassion
the stretcher for any – light or heavy – dispersal

of death. . .

The poem finishes with Devadatta’s perfectly reasonable protest that “what shackles them to suffering / is not desire . . . but the hard-set, / iron-fisted system of caste”.

And the reasonableness of this non-metaphysical (or, perhaps, non-conceptual/psychological) approach to human misery leads one to think about the issue of choosing Devadatta as the voice of these poems. He describes himself as someone continually plotting “backyard empires” and his position is, perhaps, best expressed topographically in “Vulture’s Peak” where he says that he rejects both the heights – from where you get a view of the valley – and the “small damp caves” recommended by the Buddha as a place where, alone, one can meditate on suffering “and its causes in desire”. His position, he says, is “on the level where the farm / women scythe and rick, scythe and rick, or pick // tithes of yellow samphire near the ponds”. Are his poems a kind of counter-text to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” spoken not out of incipient enlightenment but out of the profoundly human responses of love, jealousy and the desire for secular power? We are certainly more likely to relate to this as a position than we are to post-awakening sanctity, and the result is a lot of poems which crackle with the energy of frustration, disgust and envy. It’s possible, in other words, that Beveridge has chosen Devadatta because she wants to write poems which are, chronologically, a sequel to “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” and she doesn’t want to be tied to the same speaker as in that sequence. This isn’t to adopt the view that the last forty-odd years of the Buddha’s life are seen in the literature as a period of bland, sanctified, otherworldly meditation: he seems to have had to spend a lot of time sorting out the rules for his mendicant order and solving disputes among members: all very this-worldly, even political activities.

At a slight tangent to the issue of Beveridge’s choice of speaker is the issue of why religious mythology felt the need to invent a figure like Devadatta anyway. We know that it invents female figures (even in Eastern versions of Buddhism) to counteract religions that tend to be stonily male-dominated but, for a less obvious reason, it often seems to invent figures who are inside the magical circle of close adherents but who are treacherous. I won’t be the only one to think of the strange role of Judas Iscariot plays in the gospels: somebody who is a betrayer though, as everybody says, it’s hard to work out why you would pay someone thirty pieces of silver to identify a well-known activist in public. Certainly such figures show the human (in its less desirable aspects) in fruitful close contact with the divine – or awakened – and give the latter a kind of traction to operate against. But there is something odd about the way such figures are not expelled: they are free to operate within the cohort of close followers as though their presence is necessary. I suspect students of cults and other social groupings know some of the answers to this but it’s really a sociological area in which I’m ignorant.

In the context of Judith Beveridge’s work, one is reminded, when thinking of the choice of Devadatta, of the importance she places on the idea of dissonance. The title of the book in which “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” appears is Wolf Notes and a note in the book’s preliminary pages defines these as “a discordant or false vibration in a string due to a defect in structure or adjustment of the instrument”. The function of dissonance for Beveridge is a complicated question but it can be said, firstly, that it appears in different guises. There has always been, in her poetry, a sizeable component of what is now called the abject. Obviously the cast of “The Buddha Cycle” are a pretty abject lot but it isn’t just a matter of class or caste. In the extended sequence “Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman” from Storm and Honey, her previous book, readers and poet spend a fair amount of the time saturated in fish guts and blood (significantly the characters we meet apart from the central three, are fairly desperate outsiders). Wallowing in filth isn’t something we expect the Buddha himself to do and it may be significant that, when that is exactly what is recommended in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” – “To find the layers you must live in the litter, / live like the flea, the louse, the botfly; / don’t live by the flower, live by the fetor” – the speaker is not the Buddha but an overheard ascetic.

I think the function of this social and sensory embracing of the abject has a technical/poetic cause rather than being a matter of content. In other words it is not that Beveridge’s sensibility is especially drawn in this direction but rather that the abject sharpens the texture of the poems and gives them the tense, more vibrant structure that is such a wonderful feature of her poetry. Contemporary lyric poetry does, as one of its underlying dangers, have a slight tendency towards being bland: piercingly insightful and expressive, consciousness-expanding it may be but it does tend to be tonally uniform and elevated: the brilliant “Herons at Dusk” from Beveridge’s previous book is an example. The kind of dissonances I’ve spoken of briefly ensure that there is always a degree of tension at this level in Beveridge’s poems. Needless to say, a figure like Devadatta can embrace the expressive possibilities of the disgusting with brio, as he does in “Alms Round, Sarnath”:

. . . . . 
I want to tell Buddha to chew his rules about patience
and frugality into a sloppy cud. I want to hold my bowl out
as boldly as a symbol and clang it loudly with my spoon.

I want to tell these miserable, skinflint, pinch-fisted folk
to stop tossing us husks, rinds, cores, thorns, rats’ tails,
roosters’ claws and – oh! – so many stinking lepers’ thumbs!

A more interesting kind of dissonance is verbal. One of Beveridge’s poetic strengths is a love of tactile, expressive words and a fascination with unusual ones. One could cite endless examples but, to choose at random, the subject of the poem, “Rain”, from Storm and Honey, “drumbles” across awnings, gutters and windows in “gluteous loops”. The verbal extravagance of such words is justified because of their expressive capacity and their tactile reality. But Beveridge often wants to go beyond such justifiable poetic use of language, to be dissonant by being what one might call, linguistically inappropriate. There are always examples of a kind of linguistic excess expressed as tissues of synonyms or an obsessive tactility as in “Ground Swell”:

. . . . .
     So many mouths dressing the flax,
the scutch, quitch and barley, wheat and sesame;
                 so many mouths
                         in a chirl and chirm . . .

Les Murray in his poem, “Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver” describes how being inside the closed world of a car encourages a poet to let language romp and produce phrases like “orotate parafundities”. This kind of punning distortion turns up in Beveridge’s work as do more conventional puns. The passage I have just quoted from “Alms Round: Sarnath” contains an unspoken homophone whereby “symbol” becomes “cymbal” and leads on to the idea of clanging and in “Riders” the word “carousel” becomes, two lines later, “carousal”; in “Rules” Devadatta dreams of getting the Buddha out of his “tidy squat” punning on a newish word for a run-down, inhabited building and the physical position of the chairless monks of the sangha. Puns and other sorts of verbal play are part of the linguistic texture of poems, of course, but when they are made deliberately groan-inducing they disrupt the niceties of tone and become part of the dissonances. Take, for example, “The Bone Artisan” from Wolf Notes:

. . . . . Wait till you see
what I can do with a humerus; how

a simple patella makes a dish (oh,
yes say it) – for paella. This store is
full of sacral talismans, knick-knacks

I nick every day from the knackery.
I love all the bijouterie you can make
from the spine. Shall I advertise?

          Backbone bric-a-brac
          for altars and shrines.

In “Rocks, Vultures Peak” from Devadatta’s Poems, this verbal indecorousness reaches (oh, yes say it) a peak when Devadatta attempts to kill the Buddha by rolling a rock down on him. I don’t know what the narrative tone of this story is wherever it appears in the Pali Canon – presumably it is a celebration of a divinely engineered escape – but to us it inevitably recalls Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner. And Beveridge’s poem reflects this by joyously abandoning any attempt at a po-faced historical dramatic monologue and having Devadatta imagine how the killing will be reported newspaper-headline style:

. . . . .
Ah, one day Siddhattha, I’ll pick the right spot,
I’ll pick the right rock and I won’t baulk the timing.
I know how the story will go: "Slipping schist kills
local altruist." "Leader of cult, brained by basalt."
"Religious moderate, crushed by conglomerate."

It’s significant – on this subject of dissonance – that, in Devadatta’s Poems, we are introduced to the idea of both protagonists playing the flute. The Buddha plays more beautifully and can use his pure tones to dispel grief but in “A Memory: Snake Charming, Kapilavatthu” Devadatta triumphantly recalls the Buddha’s puzzlement at not being able to persuade the snake to rise from its basket no matter how intensely he played. He didn’t know – as we and Devadatta (and watchers of QI) know – that the snake responds to the movement of the instrument, not the music:

. . . . .
He’d pipe until he was out of breath, baffled because
he always reached perfect notes, perfect pitch.

I swore I wouldn’t tell him it didn’t matter
if he played melodic notes, discordant notes, or no notes
at all, that just by swinging his flute-tip in the air
his snakes would rise like fluent rope . . .

This complex play with levels of accepted verbal usage which can be found throughout all of Beveridge’s books apart, perhaps, from the first, raises the issue of the extent to which the poems of this book, together with the extensive dramatic monologues of the other books, are to be seen in a dramatic context: after all, in drama it is differences in the voice which mark out characters, not a consistency of idiom wherein the tartly dissonant braces the elevated desire to capture and express individual creatures as well as the complex web of being in which they are all enmeshed. Are these poems in any sense dramatic or are the speakers merely mouthpieces whereby a poet can develop and explore a complex vision? I know this is setting the bar rather high but a great dramatic piece like the first part of Henry IV exhibits an amazing capacity for making each of the many characters speak in a distinctive personal idiom (and actually, in the case of Glendower, brings the issue of verbal excess into the themes of the play). Presumably this occurred because Shakespeare was working with and writing for an ensemble, knew who would play which role, and conceived the speeches with the actor’s existing voices in mind. Or conceivably a lot of subtle changes were made in rehearsal. I can’t detect that kind of dramatic individuation in Beveridge’s work. It’s true that Devadatta is a carefully thought-out character – Beveridge admits in her Introduction that she has taken a lot of liberties with the existing legends – and his poems could hardly appear in “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” but that is because his situation as a grasping, frustrated rival is different, not because his voice is different. In Wolf Notes there is a longish sequence, “The Courtesan”, exploring a woman’s position and experiences. I’m not sure that she sounds very different to the Buddha of “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” though her situation is entirely different:

. . . . . 
These ascetics with their vainglorious celibacy.
They come to my door with their alms bowls.
At first they have downcast eyes. I like to

play a game: I fill their bowls not with food - 
but with water’s mirror. When they see
my face reflected, then they thirst. And
as I turn to go, they beckon me, sated by
so much sun, begging me to stay, before
some icy penitence reseeds their ground. . .

It seems recognisably Beveridge’s voice – down to the little pun on “reseeds” which induces the word “recedes” in the context of the woman’s leaving – rather than that of an individualised character. Like the question of the function of “wolf notes”, it’s a tricky issue. If I had to guess – with the current state of my knowledge about Beveridge’s poetry – I’d lean towards the idea that all her characters are really mouthpieces, poets or potential poets which can be inhabited momentarily. They are chosen because of the potential of their situations. Devadatta is an ideal counterpart to his cousin and a way of introducing a tart and dissonant voice. Of course there may be subtle differences which make this a dramatic rather than lyrical work and the problem may merely be that, as a reader, I have a tin ear.

In worrying about these general issues, I realise that I haven’t said as much as I usually do – by way of description – about the poems themselves. It’s enough to say that they are – almost without exception – marvellous.

[As everybody knows the World Cup begins in June and I’m going to interrupt these reviews for a month. Watching six hours of football every day is inimical to reading poetry though not necessarily unrelated. True, football may lack poetry’s ability to expand our minds into unimaginable dimensions but great matches (Brazil vs Italy and West Germany vs France in 1982; Brazil vs Russia and Romania vs Argentina in 1994; etc etc) are as wonderful as great poems and I’ve always thought they should be “read” using some of the same skills. At any rate, I’ll post a new review on August 1st.]

Judith Beveridge: Storm and Honey

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2009, 89pp.

This is the fourth book by one of Australia’s most loved and admired contemporary poets. By this stage we should have fairly confident ideas about the shape of her poetic genius, but I have always found that Beveridge’s poetry as a whole constantly remains a step or two ahead of me. Critically, there is nothing especially worrying about this but it is a reminder that sometimes knowing a writer’s first books gives one no ability to predict anything in the current one. And yet, reading the new book, one can see that it fits organically with the earlier ones – it is not a matter of a sudden shift in aesthetic theory or practice. Each new Beveridge book has sent me back to the earlier ones looking for poems that didn’t seem important on first reading but which now click into focus.

Storm and Honey is almost entirely about the sea. It is made up of a thirty poem sequence, “Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman”, and a little collection of a dozen discrete poems, “Water Sapphire”. There are connections everywhere with earlier books. Firstly Beveridge has always seemed to want to move into sequences: in Accidental Grace there are a set of Indian portraits and, more tellingly, a Buddha sequence. In Wolf Notes there is an extended (and extremely elusive) sequence, “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree”. Here, the “Driftgrounds” sequence is structured so that three different personalities (Grennan, Davey and the narrator) can be bounced around in dramatic conflicts. Each has a mystical component. Grennan is a kind of old man of the sea with a history and, often, surprisingly idiosyncratic values; Davey is wrapped up in the mystique of the way he approaches the world – neatly symbolised in “The Cast” by his obsession with his fishing reel:

is still turning over his reel, clicking it, calibrating,
counting as though he were sure he could crack that pack

of digits, or break into the structure of brute matter itself.

The narrator is a rather dreamier figure – less of a professional than the other two but perhaps possessed of a valuable ability to float on the surface of reality.

Although it begins with a shock when a child’s body is discovered in a shark, this is not a sequence built around narrative drive. Nothing that much happens. People fish and there is space in the structure for some portraits of other characters. In the same way that “Between the Palace and the Bhodi Tree” seemed a sequence length extension of the Buddha Cycle in Accidental Grace, so “Driftgrounds” seems an extension of all those fishing poems in the earlier books. And we have to ask what the significance of the sea is in Beveridge’s poetry. Wrestling with this, there seem at least two, reasonably exclusive possibilities. It could be that it is the ground of the poet’s being as the harbour was for Slessor, the Manly beaches for Beaver and the Hawkesbury for Robert Adamson – the primal landscape always returned to. Or it could be that it is nothing more than a conveniently reduced and thus manageable symbol of a Buddhist perception of the motions and interactions of the entire cosmos, of “brute matter itself”.

There is some poetic evidence for the former in that the poems deploy a bewildering range of words from the arcane reaches of English vocabulary which, in their harsh consonantalism (always a strength of English) create a sense of extreme tactility. The very first poem begins with a line that stresses hearing and exploits strong alliteration – “We heard the creaking clutch of the crank” – and the sequence is drenched with words like “whidders”, “brattle”, “chitter”, “flacker” (the noise of ducks taking off), “roils”, “moshing”, “katabatic” and so on. We aren’t that far from Seamus Heaney here or Lowell’s “brackish reach of shoal off Madaket”. There’s no doubt that one of the drives behind these poems is realism through tactility and why be tactile and realistic if the subject is no more than an allegorical setting? The highly tactile, aggressively consonantal, becomes the theme of one of the poems of the sequence, “Hooks”. The narrator, responding to the functional beauty of the varieties of fishing hooks – the width of the mouth, the offset of the point – comes up with various imaginative names for them: “wild-beaked bait-giver”, “ibis leaning / over the shallows” and “greenshanks / in flight”. They are poetic in the oriental mode:

                    I know Grennan and Davey
would think I’m silly naming these old hooks, but what

else is there to do when you’re stuck in a boathouse, no fish
          running, when the hooks’ real names -
Sproat, Sneck, Big Bend, Model 20R – are just not poetry.

Perhaps not, but this beautifully contrasts Asian with Germanic aesthetics and “sproat” and “sneck” have the quality that animates the poems of the whole sequence.

Two earlier poems from Accidental Grace are brought into focus by this sequence. In “The Fishermen” there is a strong sense of the sea and the crafts that it encourages as symbolic of the universe itself, a place of shifting threads, sometimes forming knots and nets, sometimes connected to individuals by lines rather as the girl of another early poem “Girl on a Rooftop Flying a Kite” is connected to the sky by a line. And the fishing lines of “The Fishermen” are complicated because although they are straight lines (and thus symbolically opposed to the lace and net patterns of woven lines) this does not mean that the fishermen are in a kind of exploiter/exploited relationship to the sea. The poem ends, memorably, with a surprise visitation:

They have always reminded me
of lace-makers. The way they stand
at the shore, looking at the sea
as if it is an open page of knots,
never a closed fabric stitched
by needles. And the way they stand
as if darning a yacht, a bird,
distant waves breaking in circles,
the passages the moon takes out
through the cliffs.
In their baskets
are things found in the hands
of needleworkers, haberdashers.
And see how they sit in the garnet
dusk, running threads into eyelets -
then bringing them back
and exposing an intimate dark.
And how they love the moon
in a scandalous design – as if
they were assured that the night
would not end without rapture
or the meridians to paradise.
. . . . .
In a chivalry
of lines they listen to the sea,
to the shells, to their reels click
in an amethyst quiet; to Odysseus
step out of the water shawled
in their sunstone-coloured nets,
his hand on his heart in a gesture
of disclosure, only the moon now
offering them sight over the waves,
as they too lift their arms into the sky.

I have quoted this poem at length not only because it is a wonderful poem and lays down so much of the important background for these later poems, but also to demonstrate that, although it seems the kind of thing which is the germ of “Driftgrounds”, it is different in that it prefers the rhapsodic to the aggressively tactile. There is another poem from Accidental Grace, “To the Islands”, which is about movement into another imaginative space. This movement is triggered by the sounds of the sea:

I will use the sound of wind and the splash
     of the cormorant diving and the music
any boatman will hear in the running threads
     as they sing about leaving for the Islands.

I will use a sinker’s zinc arpeggio as it
     rolls across a wooden jetty and the sound
of crabs in the shifting gravel and the scrape
     of awls across the hulls of yachts.

I will use the wash-board chorus of the sea
     and the boats and the skiffler’s skirl
of tide-steered surf taken out by the wind
     through the cliffs. . . . . .

I don’t think there is anything quite so explicit in “Driftgrounds”, but reading this poem in conjunction with the sequence makes one think of all these various poems about the sea, about fishing and fishermen, as inhabiting a kind of pre-departure ground. One of the characteristic moves of Beveridge’s poetry is into another imagined space and, as I’ve said of “The Fishermen”, the line connecting the individual to the sea is one of the means of departure. On this subject, it is worth dwelling for a moment about the way the works of other poets enter Beveridge’s poems. They are always italicised and acknowledged in notes and they seem stepping off points. And, of course, the quotations themselves are lines (of poetry rather than monofilament) and one has the impression that the complicated issue of influence is, in Beveridge’s poetry, no more than a momentary gift of an entry into a new world which will be the poem she is writing.

What evidence is there for seeing the sea as a symbol for the interactive universe? It is important to note a phenomenon here which, poetically, is as powerful as the tactile language. These poems are inclined to exploit simile, sometimes to the point of comic exaggeration. Take the opening of “Spittle Beach”:

     It’s cold among the siftings of shell and sand;
the rain falling slantwise out at sea. I walk among the pylons,
     fish scales are stuck to the wood like grey sleet.
               Far off, a yacht ”“

          its spinnaker filled with the wind looks as bulbous
as the vocal sac of a bell toad or a bullfrog. Along the shore
     weed, and the blunt white shells of cuttlefish;
               jellyfish like smeared

          globs of glyceride. An octopus, its head like a perfume
bottle’s puffer, has just squirted a whift of ink, tentacles
     curl in the air like baby fingers while the man hauls it in.
               Yesterday there was a shoal

     of fish turning through the current like a mirror ball,
or like . . . .

and so on, like upon like. And these similes are often genuinely metaphoric in that the connection they make is with something utterly alien to the world being described – the puffer of a perfume bottle, for example. What is the idea of reality that lies behind this? Does it come from a sense of process which undermines our inclination to see things as carefully outlined individual entities? Although it is far beyond my metaphysical capabilities, it has always been an issue for readers of the poetry of Robert Gray who has an openly Buddhist conception of reality behind his poems. And so it is no surprise that the most densely “similied” poem – so dense that you feel at times that it must be a private joke – “The Harbour”, the opening poem of the “Water Sapphire” set of poems, is dedicated to Gray. It reads like a parody of the drive for precision by simile:

Out on the harbour yachts are clustered like little wedges
of hard white cheese stuck with toothpick-thin masts.
The moon is a cocktail onion, or just plain soda cracker,
but the sun is a dollop of hot chilli relish floating above

the vol-au-vent shape of Fort Denison. At Cremorne Point
a lighthouse gleams like a salt cellar. Out between the Heads
those white spinnakers are as tautly bellied as garlic cloves.
. . . . .

And – as before – so on and so on. But at the moment when we think we are reading a parody or a poetry class exercise (“Construct a series of similes for a poem entitled ”˜Sydney Harbour Conceived as a Dining Table’”) the poem shifts into a loving celebration of Gray’s “Late Ferry”:

                                        I’m watching all this from a balcony
just as the wind gets up, just as I’m remembering your poem,
Robert, about the late ferry crossing the water – and as
the light spills intemperately and wantonly as honey.

It is very beautiful, the way in which the symbol of transcendence (or, if that is too metaphysically loaded a word, plenitude) should also be a food.

So the poetic methods of these poems employ what I have always thought of as opposed principles: the tactile, consonantal language emphasises the gritty thinginess of things and the high content of similes opens things out into larger patterns, stressing not individuality but connection. So finally I am not sure whether Sydney’s coast here is a ground of being or a symbol of the connections of the universe.

There is a third possibility about the book’s conception of the sea: it may symbolise not existence but poetry. Any poetry focussing on the making of nets and the casting of baited hooks into the sea looks as though it wants to be read in this way. It may be an easy option – it is often easy to read difficult poems as allegories of artistic creation – but when Davey in “The Point” rows his boat through a shoal of similes and comments that he is “just going on my nerve”, most of us are going to think of Frank O’Hara’s famous manifesto. At one stage I even wanted to push the analogy to the point where the three protagonists represent different approaches to writing poetry or even, more intriguingly at the level of gossip, three actual poets. But that way madness probably lies. At any rate, the poem after “The Point”, “Grennan Mending Nets”, does seem to invite this kind of symbolic connection between making poems and knotting nets:

So good to just let fish and weather turn his head, to sit and work
taking thread from warp to weft; to listen to the sea pull in and out
without a thought for tarry or departure, even for what the boats

have caught, long nets dragging from the bowsprits, wakes trawling
through the river’s inwrought gold. His fingers work the mesh,
the open weave twisting until it seems the sea itself is locked.

. . . . .

                                                            Already the light has pulled away

from the oars of boats we may never see again, and though his
hands hold weight he likes to let his mind drift, then let it find its
place like a cut and finished thread at the back of the tatted shore.

I wrote earlier of Beveridge’s love of the movement out from one reality into an imagined one and the way lines of poetry can be the tickets that enable this. This is an area that someone looking at her work so far as a whole would want to focus on. My sense – with precious little to support it – is that the world entered remains an imagined rather than, say, researched, one. It might be not so much the experience of an alien reality (the sort of thing we aim for when we learn the language of the place we are visiting and thus try to be something better than mere tourists who might as well have stayed at home and watched Discovery channel) as a metaphoric extension of the poet’s own reality. This becomes important when considering the wonderful “Appaloosa” from “Water Sapphire”. As other Beveridge poems, it includes an epigraph from another writer (“I have always loved the word guitar” – David St. John) so that the world of horses which the poem is going to enter is made available by quoting a line in which another writer enters the world of music. And the poem’s syntax is a matter of continual denials of the equestrian world:

I have never been bumped in a saddle as a horse springs
     from one diagonal to another,
          a two-beat gait light and balanced
as the four-beats per stride become the hair-blowing,
   wind-in-the-face, grass-rippling,
     muscle-loosening, forward-leaning
   exhilaration of the gallop.
. . . . .

while the intensity of the language affirms the reality of the experience. And the poem concludes with the statement that the means of entry into that world is the love of the word “appaloosa”, itself a kind of North American linguistic equivalent to the “whidderings”, “chitterlings” and “brattles” of the sea poems.

Finally there are the worlds that can’t be entered. William James famously said of the octopus: “such flexible intensity of life in a form so inaccessible to our sympathy” and in the final poem of Storm and Honey, “The Aquarium”, we get to look, through glass, at a row of these impenetrable otherworlds. And, though James is nowhere invoked, it seems right that the star of the show is the octopus. It represents a challenge not only for the individual poet but for poetic language itself. Luxuriating “in its own arms” it looks as though it were trying to write – a kind of mirror of the watching poet – and the words it seems to want to write – lollygag, lollipop, lollapalooza – recall the word “appaloosa” of the earlier poem. When she returns to the octopus she sees it enact one of those freak transformations using a ring in the tank:

          and in a flash
     as though it were a length of voile or Dacca silk, it draws
all four metres of itself through the ring’s small hole
               shape-shifting then tightening
          its small face against the glass before it holds the rim
     of the ring again, and it draws itself back through
               as if into another portal, another hole in space.

Storm and Honey is quite a book, full of remarkable pleasures and more than justifying its author’s status as one of Australia’s most important writers. Of course, as the sensitive reader will see, it is not a book that I feel thoroughly “on top of” (always an inappropriate metaphor for criticism – it should be replaced by “lost happily inside”!). Beveridge is one of those poets whose body of work grows in complexity as she goes on. But one important feature is worth concluding with: you never get the impression that Beveridge is a comfortable exploiter of the sea as useful material for a set of poems. She sets herself the challenge – as the upper echelons of poets do – of making each poem a unique and momentarily flashing structure – not unlike the forms that the sea throws up. It is the opposite of that rhetorical approach which masters a proven method, finds an amenable subject and then works it over. But it means that almost all the poems of this book respond to a sensitive probing of their conception and structure and provide enormous readerly pleasure in the process.