Sarah Day: Slack Tide

World Square, NSW: Pitt Street Poetry, 2022, 109pp.

Sarah Day’s new book begins with a prose quotation which explains its title. One might think that the moments between outgoing and ingoing tide barely need definition but the passage, in pointing out that though the water surface may appear placid, there are likely to be important and often conflicting currents running underneath, fits Day’s poetry so perfectly that you can see why it was included. Day has always been a poet sensitive to the complex phenomenon that might be called “what lies beneath” and the way in which this interacts with what lies on top. The title poem of her first book, A Hunger to be Less Serious, is a description of traffic being halted at a canal bridge which opens to let a boat pass through. It’s an emblematic scene that is rich with allegorisable possibilities: the drivers and passengers leave their cars to watch the boat pass serenely at eye-level, “carrying on board a gleaming catch / of strayed dreams and wish-fulfilments”, for example. But it is also a scene in which the drivers imagine driving onto the bridge as it opens and then crashing into the water: “The water-surface puckers with the quick current, / underneath, the grey deepens steeply; / its effect is sobering, satisfying”. A memorable poem from a later book, The Ship, describes a town suffering from the subsidence caused by centuries of mining so that when a house is sinking, its occupier “took it as given that a far distant / farmhouse had risen to view from an upstairs window”. Here the cumulative misery of the mining life of the past is what “lies beneath”, as the poem says, “far, far below on thought’s periphery”.

One could cite dozens of such symbolic situations in the poems of her eight previous books and there are plenty of them in Slack Tide. There is the title poem, for example, describing the experience of entering mud at the side of a flooded causeway at night, stepping “from the blackness / of air into blackness of water”. The world that the daylight-living, air-breathing protagonists enter is one with its own history, its own confidence, and one whose inhabitants have their own integrity:

. . . . . 
         The familiar is strange
as an underwater garden in lamplight,
an arrangement of star-struck shrubs
and tiny trees, idealised metropolis
for a myriad fish for whom the enchanting
is quite normal – neither are they troubled 
by our turbid wake. . . 

“Ouse” describes the profoundly powerful tides of The Wash in East Anglia and “Undertow” – the poem which follows it – the experience of being controlled by the contrary forces under the water. And a later poem, “The Mud Layer”, operating at a less forbidding, faintly comical, perspective, describes a mother swan attempting by example to convince her ducklings that the underwater world, the world of mud, is rich in nutrient possibilities. The chicks prefer the world above where they can “scud freely / and right way up, across mirrored clarity // of liquid blue sky, cumulous, green shoots of rushes, / and the flawless reflection of their blithe unruffled selves”. It might be a little allegory about the frustration of parents with their children’s generation but if that were the case it would be contradicted (or balanced) by an earlier poem, “School Strike for Climate”, in which the generation of the ducklings is the one that might actually achieve something in the fight against climate denial. More likely, I think, is that the allegory of the swan is to be read as demanding attention to the richness of the world beneath. In “Ouse”, after all, the tidal flood brings renewal and is likened to breath which, in the form of oxygen, reinvigorates the blood.

To step back from individual poems for a moment and look at this oft repeated scenario in Day’s work, we might say that the world above symbolises the everyday, sometimes the trivial, but always a human perspective – for better or worse. The world beneath reflects larger processes, inexorable, often dangerous to humans, but also capable of being benevolent. Like the currents of “Undertow”, though, they can’t be fought against, only yielded to. These wider processes need not be cosmic or geological – though they often are. They can also be human-based activity on a large scale. Day’s previous book, Towards Light, engaged with this because it was, as its title suggests, very much concerned with contrasting the light with the dark. There, one of the forms that the dark took was her mother’s mental decline and death and the title poem seemed more hopeful than demonstratively positive. A longish sequence in Slack Tide, “Kissing the Cobra”, has a similar, rather bleakly positive ending after a tour through contemporary misinformation and ecological stupidity:

. . . . .
Even the night birds are silent.
Red Mars hangs in the lens of the telescope
its extant life an augury of what we might become.

Will the little birds, the silver-eyes
and wattlebirds, the honeybees
all recall we left out bowls of water for them?

The opposition of the brief flicker of the humane positive against the darker backdrop of human stupidity and destructiveness (what a poem by the Queensland poet, David Rowbotham, described as licking honey from a thorn) is a common theme in Day’s work. Early on in Slack Tide we meet the crescent honeyeater going about extracting nectar:

. . . . . 
For a moment, a second really,
the relentless statistics
on the day’s news
blur behind the intimacy
of the beating wings, the tiny flower
relinquishing its sweetness
to the busy tongue.

And the book’s final poems, “In the Air” and “Voyager I” both take human creativity in the form of song as the expression of honey. In the former, listening to something written in Naples in the early seventeenth century – a time as violent as our own but perhaps less endangered – is a reminder that, in a context of “the plundering of rivers, // removal of trees, forests, farmland, / the poisoning of long sleeping aquifers”, some notes on a score might represent “a compassionate moment”. In the latter, the little disc containing the Bach concerto and “ancient songs of Arnhem Land” eternally travelling through interstellar space, may be the only survivor of the entire human race – its good and bad.

“Aldinga Cliffs, South Australia” is an extended poem built around the interaction between large, generally destructive, processes and momentary but positive flickers of light. It begins with a faux-naif but very significant line, “There’s no getting away from things”, and goes on to describe a visit to a site where monarch butterflies can be seen mating. The journey is full of two of the powerful processes. First there is geological activity evident in the cliffs with their “pebble threads to denote other epochs / of Earth events” but also in the beach shingle which has seen millions of years wear away at stone to produce pebbles “suffused with coloured hieroglyphs”. Secondly there is the equally remorseless process of human carelessness and stupidity so that you have to try consciously to

. . . . . 
                                    not notice
it is sea spurge and invasive weeds that are
their lover’s beds in the cove in the cliff
and that the cliffs themselves
are being eaten away by the ocean and wind and rain,
by runnels and rivers that have not soaked into earth
because the land for miles has been razed of its trees
and scrub and native grasses, and overgrazed
so that topsoil has followed rainwater down to the sea. . .

Balanced against these two processes are the butterflies, endowed with wings that look like the stained-glass windows of a church – short-lived expressions of hope and beauty like a honeyeater or a seventeenth century Neapolitan song.

There are poems in Slack Tide which, rather than balancing dark with light, inexorable processes with moments of illumination, prefer to deal with the processes themselves. In the case of geological and cosmic time, the issue of perspective becomes significant. In “Solace”, concentrating on the moon helps to steady the mind since in that larger perspective, “we might almost / think our great mistakes / inscribed onto land, / atmosphere, ocean, / were minor, trifling”. And “Long Clock” celebrates Danny Hillis’s complex project of building a clock that will record not human but geological time. Another of the larger processes underlying our existence is the inevitability of loss, those things that are devoured by – in Aubrey’s phrase – “the teeth of time”. One sequence, “Standish”, describes what is, in effect, the loss of one of the poet’s grandmothers, not to age and time but to incarceration in a now-destroyed English mental institution while “One Thing and Another” – a nicely judged title that uses the same shoulder-shrugging cliché as the opening line of the Aldinga Cliffs poem – details the slow but steady diminution of her father’s previously active life.

Slack Tide is, in some ways, a more outwardly looking book than Day’s earlier ones but only slightly so and only in specific ways. The themes have always been present but here there is a touch more anger and frustration and a slightly more pointed preparedness to name and shame when possible. Moving into a more public sphere involves problems for a poet where the great poetic resource of suggestiveness might have to be put aside for more direct statement. One of the techniques that poets use in this situation is allegory and Slack Tide is full of allegorical scenarios. The book’s very first poem, “Transhumance”, deals with the Covid pandemic. It’s method of preventing it’s resulting in no more than journalistic recording, is to imagine the spread of the disease to be like the spread of human populations and then write the poem from the point of view of one of these metaphorical humans:

It happened more quickly
than anyone might have expected,
we were unsure whether
we were shifting from mountain
to plain or low ground to high.
There were false starts,
many reluctant to leave
the familiar old terrain.
Then suddenly we were all
on the move in both hemispheres
and in every continent. . . 

In a similar way, “Ivy” looks carefully at that omnipresent species of semi-parasitical plant and sees it as an allegory of capitalism at its most exploitative extreme:

. . . . . 
The imposter that is the familiar
thrives on all six continents,
has founded a lush new social order.
It knows neither diplomacy nor democracy,
only how to look after itself.
Exploiter of space and sunshine,
expansionist over earth and root,
seeker of fissures in soundness,
it is impervious ro bramble thorn
and claw. . .

Allegory involves readers in some interpretive work but compensates them with the pleasure of having “worked it out”: it’s probably significant that the little poem about the honeyeater is called “gnomic”. But allegory isn’t always as simple as in “Ivy” and “Transhumance”. “Whipsnake” describes how the poet’s companion, in a normal, humane gesture helps a small snake climb out of a dangerously hot sand dune by building a little ladder of “driftwood // and dried seaweed”. But the poem finishes by suggesting (I think) that innocent actions might assist what are, ultimately, evil processes:

. . . . . 
The snake seems to understand your intent
finding refuge at least in the ribbon of shade.

It is black, venomous
as cruel actions born of old sorrows.

You turn without waiting to walk along the beach,
your gesture light as innocence.

A poem from Towards Light, a villanelle called “Sea Ice”, takes us towards the farther end of allegory where simple certainties of interpretation no longer exist. On the surface (!), it is a poem about how the sea ice breaks up into smaller floes but two elements make me want to read it allegorically. The first is one of context: the book in which it occurs includes a later series of poems detailing the slow disintegration of the poet’s mother’s mind. The second is the use of the word “self”:

. . . . . 
Frazil ice is granular and lacks
a crust: the heft and turbulence below
stirs up a slush; the solid mass reacts

as now the waterline, like wax,
recedes, yields up the pieces of the self below.
The slowly setting sun lights up the cracks. . . 

It could be no more than another poem about the way in which the forces below the surface disturb and eventually destroy the world above, but it’s tempting to read it as an allegory of the way in which the disintegration of the mind in dementia reveals the self in fragments.

At any event it is worth thinking about the technique of allegory as a way of allowing poetry to face brutal realities (what Yeats described as poetry’s “responsibilities”) without being mealy-mouthed or merely rhetorical and without sacrificing all of poetry’s immense capabilities of widening perceptions and making suggestive connections. Allegory is a trope and so it is, in essence, about a surface meaning and a deeper meaning and in this it mimics the idea of a world above and a world below. Given how much the relation between the above and the below is an important part of Day’s view of the world, there’s an attractive consistency in deploying (even if not in all the poems) a technique which adopts this at a hermeneutic level.

Sarah Day: Towards Light and Other Poems

Glebe, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2018, 108pp.

Sarah Day’s previous book, Tempo, was loosely concerned, as its title suggests, with time not as an overarching or structuring theme but rather as topic or perspective that recurred in what might have, otherwise, looked like quite different poems. There are plenty of poems about time in this new book, Towards Light, but the most important theme seems to be the issue of wholeness and its counterpart, dissolution, especially expressed in the opposition of light and dark. The last section is devoted to a particularly painful and personal experience of dissolution in her mother’s experience of Parkinsonism and her eventual death. The poems here are never a mere list of horrors but are always clear-eyed and analytical: the entire section reflects this in its title, “The Grammar of Undoing”. It’s tempting to see it as a theme subtly announced in the first two poems of the first section of the book: “Fe” (whose title is the chemical symbol for iron) is about the movement of Magnetic North, and “Fog” is about the way a visual image of a ferryman on a lake is obliterated by fog.

“Fe” is a fully rhymed sonnet – traditional forms pop up every so often in Day’s work – and so makes its point rather tightly. One would expect the continuous movement of Magnetic North – it now moves at a rate of forty kilometres a year in a circle – to disorient those animals which rely on it for navigation, to induce, in other words, a kind of dementia. But, the poem concludes, “Blood hears more than its own euphony / as the sliding behemoth in fits and starts / quietly adjust our compasses, our hearts”. The second poem asks us to imagine a lake in which a ferryman disappears into the fog of its title:

. . . . . 
your last glimpse of him
in profile, his dark cap
pulled low over his ears,

an upright silhouette at the wheel,
the little prow nose-up, optimistic,
Man, ferry, empty seats,
vanishing into the vacuum.
Gone, before you can draw breath . . .

Ferrymen are obviously burdened with being carriers of the dead across the waters of oblivion and this poem, in some ways quite a straightforward realistic descriptive piece (it is “set” in Tasmania’s Lake St Clair), is simultaneously a symbolic piece about dissolution. The fact that a sonnet is followed by an extended free verse meditation may in itself be a little symbol, deliberate or accidental, of the different ways meaning can occur in a poem: the latter running the risk of wordy dissolution and the former the risk of an over-tight structure that cuts off possible readings in the interests of the one true reading the author intended – a Magnetic North, in other words, which stays still. Intended or not, these two poems make quite an introduction to the book’s themes.

Although I have tended to present them as rather negative poems, preparing for the book’s final section, even these first two have their upbeat elements. The first concludes positively – those who are blood relations can adjust to one member of the family’s disorientation – and the second doesn’t exploit the negative possibilities of its image of a ferryman and his boat’s journey into the fog. This suggests that the first section of the book may be imagined as a counterpart to the last and it is true that other poems of this section – surely the strongest part of the book – are also quietly positive. One tells the story of St Anthony preaching to the fishes – evoking the tiled art of Lisbon – and finds a kind of positiveness in the grotesquely comical saint’s tale:

. . . . . 
I see now how the arced frame of the blue
and white tiled tableau repeats the arches
of the bridge, so that the whole metaphor
of foolishness becomes a tunnel into light.

Those last words encapsulate the form that the positive elements in Towards Light tend to take. It’s a difficult issue because poetically the positive only “works” when it is paired with the negative (in Bruce Beaver’s terms, lauds have to work together with plaints). Without this the positive can be nothing more than, psychologically, an expression of an upbeat personality (Christopher Smart, say) or, philosophically, a gesture towards transcendence. And “transcendentalist” appears in one of the poems, “Jetty”, which seems a kind of adjunct to “Fog”, since that earlier poem spends a stanza on the “high definition / concrete jetty with its rusting pillars / and yellow parallel lines like a highway’s / bolting towards the blank unknown”. The subject of “Jetty” is presented not as a gesture but as a delicate balance. It is as reality-bound as it is possible to be – “bolted to fact and need / with post and bollard // and plank” – but it also exists as something capable of taking us “toward a cool horizon, / the line of thought // poised above the plane . . .”.

Sometimes, in Towards Light, the symbolic light appears in a setting of trees forming what “Knocklofty” calls “a tree light atrium” and the title poem calls a “tea-tree corridor”. One of the features of a forest setting is, of course, that it is organic: rich processes of decay and dissolution are occurring underfoot balancing out the movement towards light. In “Overcoat”, the final poem of the first section of the book, we get to see this fascination with unity and dissolution in a social rather than a landscape setting. An elderly couple, looking as though they had “walked off an extras scene / in a Second World War film”, turn up in a doctor’s waiting room in which the other patients, as to be expected in that situation, are each locked in an inward turned near-solipsism:

. . . . . 
They had entered
from the dark corridor behind,
nodding a greeting to each and every person
waiting, even the girl on her mobile phone
talking angrily to the window glass
as if her mother, to whom she remonstrated,
was on the other side out there on the street . . .

At first it seems like a poem about the different customs of past times, better in some ways, perhaps, but barely relevant – even comic – today. But the other poems of the book enable us to refine this slightly. The old couple, for whatever reason, are engaged in their community and with the individuals who make up that community and it is interesting, and fitting, that they emerge not out of the light but out of the “dark corridor behind”. They represent the optimistic view that, in this book, is balanced against the bleak. By the time we get to the Parkinsonism poems at the end we realise that that disease not only fragments the individual mind but also cuts the sufferer off from the community of loved ones and friends.

By establishing a sense of unity as something that can also exist beyond a single person – in community, for example – “Overcoat” prepares for the second section of the book which looks at these issues in the broadest possible perspective. “Europe”, set in a plane trip at the time the result of the Brexit vote was announced in 2016, is a poem about Europe’s community and the forces which are at work to dissolve it. It’s a bleak poem about a disturbing event, sensing that community is always very frail and easily dissolved, that the miraculous vision of a peaceful Europe “after centuries of bloodshed”, an “idea, not a market”, has just had a part of its foundations removed. “Empire”, by way of contrast, is a poem meditating on the ethical issues of a certain kind of social unity. Someone of Day’s age is likely to find themselves, as a child, torn between the comforting sight of the spread of red areas on a map detailing the expanse of the great British empire to which they belong and the more disturbing idea – a shift which occurred in the sixties – that empire is an imposition, a bad thing. “At school”, she says, “we practised / doublethink, the art of knowing contradictory / principles to be true” whereas now “I’m more wary of / the shifting palimpsest of truths, the fanatic tides, / the celluloid transparencies, the overlaying slides”.

“Middens, Tasmania” continues these issues of imperial community and the survival of the past by speaking of the midden shells which turn up in the mortar used for the Georgian houses. “Dunes” comes at community by looking at the issue of urban development and what kind of role psychological and communal belonging have when seen in the perspective of the natural environment:

The suburban bus route
elicits in its rider
a mood of compliance
while it finds the longest distance
possible between two points,
allowing that time is expendable,
that mangrove swamps, ti-tree forests
and wild coasts become sub-divisions
with names like Anna Bay, Corlette. . .

But the land puts up its own fight. A boggy farm is described as a place “that wants to be marsh land” and the bus goes past a “derelict mess” of “concrete holiday apartments that / the inexorable dunes are repossessing”. I’m not sure of the author’s intentions as to the way a poem like this and “Middens, Tasmania” interrelates with the poems in the book which lament a drive towards dissolution but, as a reader, it is tempting to see them as a kind of ethical counter-image, saying something like: “Community is good, the forces that seek to dissolve it are bad; but in some cases – empire, urban sprawl – the issue is reversed and right is on the side of the forces which are doing the dissolving”. Of course, in the case of the natural world reclaiming shopping centres and holiday flats, it may be that a superior unity (superior because earlier) is defeating a mass-movement which is not a true unity at all.

The third section of the book, the longest, seems on the surface a more homely collection of pieces about birds, cows (in Galicia) and the natural world at large but here the same themes of community (as well as time) mark the poems out. When the birds of “Eastern Curlew” are about to migrate the flock undergoes that strange preliminary flutteriness – Zugunruhe – which, far from an expression of individual dis-ease, is actually a group phenomenon, as is the migration itself. The death of a hen is a long way from a meditation about Brexit but the connections are there when, in “The Last Days”, a bantam stays loyally with a much larger hen which is gradually succumbing to old age. Both “Pastoral” and “Camp Ground. Early Morning” are strongly denotative descriptive pieces whose raison d’etre might initially puzzle readers, especially if they were encountered free from the context of the themes of this book; both, though, in their own way – one devoted to human organisation, the other to animal – are portraits of a miniature society that clearly works.

This matter of scale – the way the macro can be expressed in the miniature – is an important general issue in Day’s work. It could be reasonably said to be important in any imaginative use of language, of course, because any sort of substitution, as in metaphor or metonymy, involves a larger being replaced by a smaller or (more rarely) vice versa, but many of these poems enjoy the disjunction between the wide perspective and the tight focus. In “Visitation” the poet, kneeling among weeds, finds herself passed by a flock of turkeys. Her position helps to reduce the difference in dimension between the human- and bird-worlds and she and the turkeys share some kind of brief moment together:

. . . . . 
Then one bird called to another in the queue to come and look,
at something new, their strange intelligence appraising
in those tiny heads while straining, it seemed, to supervise

their enormous bulk. The wire fences through which
they passed like water, were immaterial. The blue gum
the paddock, the clover and rye – we were all involved.

The poem, though, also makes an unusual act of imaginative expansion by casually commenting that the name of the bird, “turkey”, is that of the “gateway between East and West” a reference to the movement of peoples, historically, in both directions which has caused so much concern in recent history.

The same sort of gesture occurs in two poems, “Bede” and “The Music of the Spheres” – about the burning of Giordano Bruno – in the fourth section of the book. Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People might seem to be a monument of national identity and hence isolation, is celebrated for exactly the opposite since he is represented as someone who saw how the “migration tides from continental homelands” – the Germanic influx of the fifth century – were perfectly capable of forming a single people. He is also portrayed as someone with a great capacity for moving out beyond his conventional limits – from brain work towards handiwork “a man who loved good carpentry”, and from insular England to intellectual activities that were both of another place and another time:

. . . . . 
               In a world of ox and awl
and plough, Bede studied Plato, 
Aristotle, music, poetry,
calculated movement of the stars. . .

While Giordano Bruno is a byword for the kind of intellectual imaginativeness about creation which always wanted to break the bounds of the restrictive beliefs of his contemporary world.

Towards Light shows these themes consistently in the varied poems that make it up. But it also continues Day’s earlier work – it is the same poet after all. A little poem about fast-motion footage of the way two bean shoots compete recalls “Natural Selection” from her first book, for example. It raises the question of whether the process of natural selection is an example of unity or dissolution, or whether it shows unity as a dynamic process rather than a static one. And there are many poems which follow the previous book, Tempo, in being concerned with the effect of time. One of these, “Anachronisms II”, actually begins “I forgot to mention” and thus refers to the original “Anachronisms” in Tempo with, surely, the little joke that it is anachronistic to think that it is possible to add to a list of anachronisms in a separate book. In a sense then, reading Day’s work, is a little like an exercise in the kind of themes that Towards Light focusses on. Though it is highly structured it contains quite an assortment of kinds of poems – is the book a unity in itself? If it is part of a changing set of interests and obsessions across a poet’s career, is that change an example of dissolution? The answer, surely, is that it’s a widening out into new and larger unities.

Sarah Day: Tempo

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 74pp.

Since Sarah Day’s new volume shows an almost Roman interest in boundaries, it’s no surprise that its opening poem – about the founding of Alexandria – focusses on the equivocal moment when a flock of birds eats the flour used to mark out the new capital’s city limits and that its third poem – about Pompeii – concludes with the poet, enmeshed in temporal continuities, walking towards a modern farmer tilling a field, “He will not meet my eye / as I skirt his tilled boundary to the station”. Deploying the word “skirt” here might lead us to expect that gender may be going to play an important part in the issue of borders and their crossability or otherwise but Day’s poems are humanist in the broad sense of viewing humankind as a group rather than focussing on its quarrelsome divisions.

Tempo is, like all good books of lyric poetry, founded on a coherent and consistent view of things which finds expression and, sometimes exploration, in the poems. The same spirit and interests inform almost all the poems, radically different though they might be. If one tried to be specific about this underlying nexus of concerns one might isolate the following: borders and crossings, the dimensions of time, stasis and movement, the near and the far (an issue of perspective), and outline (abstraction) and substance. All of these, even the interest in time, express themselves as binaries and the structure and life of the poems (which are made with an apparent though light formal element) is almost always derived from the tensions of oppositions.

To return to the first poem, “El Iskandaria”, we can see that what it is interested in is the way in which the marking out of the city’s outline (an innocent enough thing in itself) is really an act of exclusion whereas the intellectual and mercantile glories of Alexandria (the home of the Library and the Septuagint, among much else) will come from the ships and ideas which flood in from outside:

. . . . . 
In the flurry of wing and hungry beak
though, the soothsayers saw no travesty
but a message in the darkened air
the future city would be blessed with plenty.

It makes one remember the importance of that originary Roman myth where the ill-fated Remus jumps over his brother’s walls but it also makes us think of our own country’s recent history. Living as we do in a state of media-inspired xenophobia and its obsession with secure borders, it’s hard not to believe that there is a sharp contemporary and local point to this poem. The issue of borders has a personal, or at least, familial, perspective in another poem, “Outsiders”, which focusses on the history of the poet’s family in Tasmania – “An immigrant family, / ours was a small island / on the island we had moved to”. This group of exiles sets about documenting difference (there must be a touch of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl” when Day says “Childhood was a taxonomy / of binary difference. / The youngest, I grew up taking notes”) but is, perhaps, saved from complete xenophobia by the ability to alter perspective:

my father, scorned in the machine shop
for his white shirt and tie,
clung for dear life to his reference points,
gravitated to migrants like himself
and discovered, from this antipodean angle,
he had more than a little in common
with wartime Germans.

Although the issue of time in Tempo might be seen as a matter of a discrete theme, in a sense the movement from the past to the present is also an example of crossing borders. We need to be reminded that the past can be seen as irrecoverable in its essentials. “Anachronisms” is a set of examples of changes occurring in the small space of a single lifetime which remind us how different the past was when handwritten envelopes appeared in your letterbox and milk and newspapers were actually delivered to your door. The comfortable bringing of the past into the present, such as is found in popular “historical” fiction, is an act of appropriation full of dangerous potential misunderstandings. But sometimes the past, as in the dead bodies in “In Time, Pompeii”, thrusts itself at us, seeming to declare how “readable” and comprehensible it is. This is the subject of a fine poem, “Fayoum”, which is about the wonderful paintings accompanying the mummified bodies in Hellenistic Egypt two millennia ago. They seem so immediately realistic and relatable-to that, as the poem says, they are like “missives from another age” which make a sieve of time by slipping through into our present. The right attitude to the past, the poems seem to say, is one of balance: we should respect the border of unrecoverable difference while celebrating those odd moments in which these borders are breached.

Many of the poems of Tempo involve, in one way or another and at one level or another, the idea of movement versus stasis. “Northern Window” is a poem about the classic North/South opposition that Auden’s “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno” explores so well. Amsterdam is seen in mid-winter and everything is chilled into a static composition. This includes even the pilgrims in the mosaic in the Rijksmuseum – though the poem, perhaps thankfully, doesn’t call this a “frieze”. The only thing moving is a crane which looks like a Christ figure with open arms. But “on the sill” – presumably of the poet’s room – is a Venezuelan statuette of Mary with her back to the window, “disturbed perhaps / by Anglo-Saxon interiority”, facing the Latin-American world of sunlight, movement but also – and it is the poem’s final word – “evanescence”. “River Fisher” uses this binary in a quite different way. Describing the experience of fishing by wading (I presume it’s about fly-fishing) the poem is interested in the flow of the river which is strong and remorseless as opposed to both its apparent surface stillness and the fact that there are pockets of still water inside the stream itself: “In flowing water, still ponds reside: / a trout, suspended in a boulder’s vacuum / might watch a line of bubbles / slip downstream like an elver”. There are a lot of allegorical possibilities here and it’s tempting to see it as an expression of the oppositions I have spoken about so far. Water, we are told, “resists an interloper” – that is, it resents having its borders crossed – but it is possible to see the still ponds as analogous to those moments when the flood of time (a very Slessorian image and obsession) allows a momentary connection with objects from the past such as the Fayoum portraits. One is tempted to do this because another poem, “Hay Load”, which is interested in the opposition between the flow of oncoming, speeding traffic and the stately progress of a carefully balanced truck of hay specifically says that the hay truck and its load are timeless and not only in the sense that people have always mown and moved grass.

A more complex and often puzzling interest in the poems of Tempo is the idea of outline. In my introduction I constructed it, in the interests of neatness, as an opposition between abstracted outline and filled out completeness. Whether this is accurate or not, it’s an issue that recurs so frequently in this book that it needs some consideration. It first appears in villanelle form, in the fifth poem, “Afterimage”. Since I’ve long ago fallen out of love with this repetitive verse form, I may be forgiven for finding “Afterimage” not really very clear. It seems to focus on negative images, rather than outlines, but clearly wants to make a case for the occasionally superior truthfulness of inversion, of the space between things. Less abstract is “Lightning in a Portuguese Garden” where a flash of lightning provides an image – again in a Slessorian way – “outside time”. The essence of this is, of course, that the portrait presented, having avoided the flux of process, has become, perhaps like a work of art, something that can “disclose more than day” – though if there is a pun there on the poet’s name, then perhaps I shouldn’t equate the lightning picture with art. At any rate, it’s an issue taken up in “Shadow Trees”, complete with reference to Plato in its epigraph, where the City Council (which “seems to have / a policy on chiaroscuro”) delivers shadow trees. Day thinks of the way in which her life of perception is focussed on such outlines:

. . . . . 
Some silhouettes I find I have
always been walking through
like numinous fig leaves on a sandstone wall;
the three-D geometry of banksia in the porch;
a winter oak projected on a public lawn,
twin ashes breathing intricate as lungs
across a busy street . . .

wondering whether this is a result of the fact that with age comes an increasing familiarity with the dead (“Like the dead, / They stand among us on the streets”) or whether it’s a matter of the quality of light becoming sharper (perhaps as a result of climate change).

That subject – climate change – is at the heart of another poem, “The New World Book of Detail”, but the context of the book’s complex oppositions makes it a much more sophisticated and difficult one than this simple thematic description suggests. Here the atlas (found on a beekeeper’s bureau) represents “a false blue present / of fixed littorals and politics”, that is it shows borders and outlines fixed for one time by one perspective. But the world is in constant flux, and climate, though it dominates the poem, may really be only one fairly obvious example of that flux. The bees are vulnerable to that change (spring has come so early that there seems to have been no winter) and the beekeeper will move them to higher altitudes in search of true winter. The bees are a model of the collective, immensely richly productive of the “collective energy which is sweet, aromatic order” and contrast with the beekeeper himself who is an individual. The drive of the poem seems to be to cross the perspective border of the generalised as opposed to the detailed so that although ”˜the language of wide-range weather systems / is mostly generality” yet “a taxonomy of the particular might emerge”.

Which leads me to the final issue: that of perspective, something which, in an earlier review, I wanted to make out was an essential component of Day’s lyricism. The second poem of Tempo, “New Year’s Eve” seems, on the surface, not much more than a celebration of continuities even if the larger context of the book shows that continuity is to be seen as something which is in opposition to borders. But the poem is just as much about perspective, the non-humancentric image of the cosmos which now enables us to imagine seeing ourselves from another vantage point in space and rethinking the borders and oppositions which seem so pressing from our own standpoint. There is a good poem about ageing called “Far and Near” which explores the way perspective ultimately implicates ethics. It begins simply enough with a first stanza that details the changes that acquiring a pair of reading glasses brings – a grey cat’s fur turns out, for example, to be full of colours – but, in the other two stanzas this moves from a matter of visual acuity to a far wider, ethical perspective. And it does it with a very striking, certainly surprising, shift:

. . . . . 
Somehow the distant has moved near:
the black-faced cuckoo shrike against the farthest tree;
once inaccessible lines of poetry. . .

Once the poem has made the movement out from a visual perspective to the act of reading poetry, a host of altered perspectives flood in (if hosts can flood):

I want to know how people thought and slept
and lived in Rome and China and Egypt
a hundred or two thousand years ago.
Sappho, Rousseau, Michelangelo,
stone-age men, before words, how did they see
it all? And television’s importunity
invites contemporary comparison -

the father sheltering his son from gun-
shot, old people ousted from their home:
they all become your uncles, parents, nieces,
or your cousins . . .

These empathic, ethical identifications are a result of altering perspectives but they can also be framed in terms of the crossing of the usual borders of opposition.

I hope that this rather remorseless search for underlying concerns and for generative oppositions doesn’t give the impression that Tempo is a programmatic book in any way. On first acquaintance it is likely to be the variety which makes an impression because this is a book made up of poems which are lists (“Anachronisms”), vignettes (“Hens at the Water Bowl”), celebrations (“Family Tree”, “Luck”), compressed and Delphic lyrics (“Rowan”), staged oppositions (“Plantation”) as well as essayistic pieces like “Far and Near” which always move more imaginatively and subtly than a review like this, for example, does. But it’s the underlying consistency – thematic and structural – that makes entering the world of Sarah Day’s poetry so satisfying. And its concerns, as I said in the beginning, are classically humanist. The best expression might be in “Tanker” a poem about the way in which a supertanker negotiates its own oppositions: the fresh water of the Tagus meets the salt Atlantic and produces monstrous waves which the ship rocks between. While it is tempting to read this situation as symbolising all of the oppositions which Day deploys in her poetry, it’s significant that the final statement is about the crew and the way they are dealing with this: “are they afraid, or are they playing cards / as the pendulum swings?”

Sarah Day: Grass Notes

Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2009, 73pp.

Sarah Day is a fascinating poet whose work deserves to be more widely praised. She is also a really uneven poet, capable of following a stunning second book (A Madder Dance, 1991) by a really weak third one (Quickening, 1997) and this (to me) undeniable fact has coloured my responses to the two books which have followed: The Ship (2004) and now this new book, Grass Notes. Instead of trying to work out what underlies the poems and whether this has changed as the years have gone on – my usual initial questions of a substantial body of poetry – I find myself asking, in Day’s case, why some of these poems excite me so much while others seem, at best, ordinary. It is actually hard to believe that the poet who wrote the first four poems of A Madder Dance is the same poet who wrote the first four poems of Quickening. The best I can do is to propose the idea that she is a poet who, at the deepest level, responds to the frameworks by which we deal with experience, rather than the experiences themselves or their meanings: she is – and I’m nervous here about being reductive or Procrustean – a poet of perspective.

This (at best) generalised suspicion certainly makes some sense, in retrospect, of her first book, A Hunger to be Less Serious (1987), a good but in no way remarkable debut collection. It has four sections and the opening one is a group of portraits. Nestled in here is the book’s title poem which might well have appeared in the second section and is only a portrait in the sense of resulting from observing a group. Here a row of cars waits for a bridge to swing open and a barge to pass along the canal: it’s the European equivalent of waiting at the rail crossing for the train to pass. For a moment the drivers and car passengers are allowed out of their regimented and mechanised existences and flock to the side of the canal to watch the passing of the barge (and its attached dinghy), a symbol of a flightier, less “serious” mode of existence:

When she comes into view, the tub meets all expectations:
an old canoe-stern, trailing her fledgling nose-up in the wake,
sailing sublimely past the crowd and the procession of deserted vehicles,

away, away into the horizon,
carrying on board a gleaming catch
of strayed dreams and wish-fulfilments.

This is one of those poems of dichotomy of which the book’s second section is full. It is something poetry, with its powers of compression and suggestion, does better than prose but it is a familiar mode and one in which it is difficult to spring any surprises. Before I leave these portraits, though, I should mention “Voices from Ti-tree”, not because it is especially successful but for its relevance to the later poetry. It is three (rather than two) monologues delivered by orphaned sisters: the first keeps the house together, removes the scrap, kills the hens and keeps the pot full; the second gardens by burying waste to enrich the soil and the third collects detritus from the shore, ostensibly to help the other two but really to revel in the beauty of the chips of porcelain she finds. I’m not sure about the first sister but the other two clearly symbolise methods of creation: alchemical transformation of scrap and the collecting and arranging and meditating on detritus ripped out of its context. The image of a person collecting from the shore fragments of the lives of others and trying to make sense of them (which is, I suppose, trying to find a perspective from which they can be read) is an image that appears in a number of Day’s later poems.

This is a three-part allegory but in the book’s second section we are in the world of posed, symbolic binaries. Two brothers who are fishermen respond to either the calm water inside the bar or the wilder water beyond it. “Fountain and Bell” contrasts the perspective of the bell tower which can see “the village neat; / fields and farms are mere pattern” with that of the fountain which watches the women immersed in their domestic lives of laundry. Most important of these is “Anemones” which contrasts two approaches to the beach (and thus, to experience). The male, when a little boy, observed the goings on in rock pools whereas the I-figure was a lot more engaged:

It occurred to me today, the difference,
yours and mine, out there among the rockpools
on the beach.

Even now you hang back,
loath to touch the fleshy female forms
recoiling from the plump translucent lips

of scarlet sea creatures – phantom lives
which float unanchored and without direction
beneath the glassy surface.

Oblivious to sound and touch and smell you only see
and only what you want to see.
A little boy you knelt for hours on end

beside the smooth shallows,
absorbed by tiny patterns, subtle shadows,
species only patience will reward.

I could not wait, I liked to see things move,
to hold them in my hand, to feel a hundred
tickling legs wriggling through finger spaces.

It gave you the willies the way I’d poke inside
the magic sequined rings of broken shale and shell
to feel the life inside respond and hold.

On the surface this seems to oppose a fastidious desire merely to observe life (with the use of a single sense) with a passionate desire to immerse oneself in life using all the senses. There is also a suggestion of a kind of pre-adolescent sexual disgust in the former. But it is worth noting, in the light of the poems which are to come, that this is also the opposing of perspective against immediate experience. If I am right in believing that Day’s poetry is at its best and fullest when it engages the former, there is a certain irony in this early poem’s positioning of the narrator so that the latter seems to be the approach approved of. Perhaps “Anemones” is balanced by a poem from the final section of A Hunger to be Less Serious, “Hawk”. Here the binary is the hawk’s view of the world with the hare’s. For the former it is a matter of “the higher / I soar / the better / I see”; for the latter, experience is a matter of what a later poem calls “immersion in substance” for the hare “sits up / and sees / the whole world / move with one wave – / green”. Interestingly we are not given any clues about which of these perspectives is approved. Perhaps the whole natural world is beyond human preferences but though my claws might be stained in blood I think that, in general, I’d rather be a hawk than a hare!

Though A Hunger to be Less Serious might have prepared prescient readers for the general direction of the poems of A Madder Dance, it is the quality of this second book which is a surprise. As with the first book, it begins with portraits. The first is of a pilot, a man used to hawk and bell-tower perspectives, entering the upper floors of a hotel. It has a wonderful, complex conclusion that is far beyond those of the earlier poems:

To swoop down, re-enter where the miniature looms
large as skyscrapers, is to step backwards

each time, to enter the unstructured humdrum
of the atom. Give him beauty, order and the balm

of those who are also located in arrival, departure,
flux, for whom I will be gone soon are the words

most easy to find. Those ahead of their selves,
whose souls, travelling overland on foot

and many times overtaken, have given up the search,
taking a spiral route of their own choosing.

This is a long way from “the higher / I soar / the better / I see” since it relates perspective to immediacy in a way that echoes through later poems – even though I’m not absolutely sure of the meaning of the last lines. At any rate the “spiral route of their own choosing” is code for an immersion in experience that processes experience in a different way and it recurs in the second poem, a monologue delivered by someone in the electric chair. He says, predictably enough, “It is hard to see the pattern / when you are the lines that construct / or the lemniscate you are riding” but the poem’s last lines recall the image of the spiral in the first poem:

People are the evidence that of time,
distance, order is born
though in stepping back to view
the choreography, a foot may whirl
into the gyre of a madder dance.

These two complex poems are intriguing and successful but they are a little stagey and Day may have felt that they are too “philosophical” in that, despite their settings, their true fabric is one of undiluted (and rather instructional) meditation. This problem is solved by one of the best of the poems in the book, “Goldstein’s Drapery”. Set in a fabric shop it points out how the stacks of material become a kind compressed history of fashion as though they were archeological strata. They provide, in other words, a removed perspective from which fashion (and life) can be understood but they are contrasted with the shop’s owner who lives immersed in the moment and has “the sense within her of the new / coming on to the new coming on to the new”. A similar idea is restated in “Oblivious Among the Dust” which is, perhaps, not as interesting a poem as “Goldstein’s Drapery” but which I have always remembered for its wonderful line, “Things change. Those straight slacks my mother wore . . .” in which one of philosophy’s great propositions is welded to a thoroughly homely example proving, if proof were needed, that the most powerful effects in discourse are achieved by radical modulations between “high” and “low” levels.

Finally, in this revisiting of A Madder Dance, there is “Handles to the Invisible”. It too is concerned with perspective and begins with a gesture which is distinctive to Day’s style. A couple wander around a beach looking for “detail” and their wanderings are imagined to be plotted on a map – in other words seen from a very removed perspective. At any rate, the details that the characters collect are fragments of pottery and glass which have been abraded by the sea to the point where their totality has been compromised and their context removed. They are, the poem says, “handles to the invisible, / ornate illusions [surely “allusions” is intended though this spelling is repeated in a Selected Poems] to the untold or half-told . . .” and it is hard to know whether the poem is delighted more by the notion that huge and independent worlds lie behind these fragments or by the celebration of the homely, broken survivors and their challenge to a poet to recreate the larger whole.

The Ship combines two main thematic drives. There is the sense that, if you alter perspective, you can see a hidden world, behind the surface world. And this world is usually a menacing one. The book prepares us for this when it begins with a poem, “Underneath the City”, set in the subterranean world of sewers from which “subterranean missives” are sent to the upper world. Another poem expands this by describing a town built on abandoned mines so that the messages sent are specifically a reminder that present comfort is predicated on past exploitation. “Menace” describes the sense of menace which lies “behind the scenes / of urban seeming” and “High fire Danger” focuses on the way that a future apocalypse might be figured in a day of bushfires which are themselves announced by strange alterations in visual perspectives. These, as do many of the poems in the book, show themselves sensitive to a many-layered quality in the world where alternate worlds are aligned alongside, behind or underneath the ordinary. It is the reason for a poem the exact implications of which, if we encountered it on its own without the context of Day’s approach to things, might escape us. “Out of the Dark” moves from simple rural family experience to ask an important question:

As the smell of autumn rose from the ground,
like mushrooms and the evening valley exhaled

its cold oak-leaf breath over the thin layer of daytime air;
and the bonfire exhausted itself along with the excitement

of children, now withdrawing, the herd of Friesians
must have approached, stealthy as the encroaching night,

curious as cows can be, drawn by the glow
or the mood of contemplation around the diminishing fire.

Who knows how, when you are gazing inwards at an ember,
a circle of great-faced beasts can materialise

at one’s shoulder out of the dark periphery?

True, the word “inwards” carries a lot of weight here and it is possible to read the poem more as a description of an invocation of a greater world rather than the perception that such a world exists, hidden, beneath or behind the usual social one and can be seen by a readjustment of one’s vision, but the impulse behind the poem is the same.

The second theme of The Ship is signalled in its title and recalls the first poem of A Madder Dance. We are in the world of departures here, of “embarking, disembarking”. But the journeying ship, train or car is also a mobile world, a present which moves through time and space, moving its perspective as it does so. The QE2 “slips downriver / illuminating a continuous present” in much the same way as the poet’s child, carried in a shopping trolley or in the back of a car, in the book’s last poem, is a point of view exposed continually to the mundane. “Cruise Ship” is built around the issue of what the view would be like from different positions and “Easter Train” – a kind of revisiting of “A Hunger to be Less Serious” in which the barge is substituted by a train – moves its point of view to be that of the celebrating journeyers rather than the spectators. There are many other poems which operate out of this group of concerns and methods. “From the Flight Path” for example concludes with Day’s characteristic gesture of mapping movement (that is, seeing it from an enormously remote perspective), “Seven miles up, / the crowded corridors / of the great circle routes / encircle us like planet rings” but most interesting is the title poem. Here we revisit the experience of being a migrant child travelling to Australia by boat from England (an experience I share with Sarah Day, though mine occurred rather earlier). It is a multipart poem (which nowadays always raises the suspicion that it was written with a competition in mind) but it rather beautifully combines both the themes I have outlined. It is very sensitive, for example, to other worlds, or, perhaps I should say, other versions of our world. She knows that the ship travels powered by “a Dantean underworld / of underpaid labour” and devotes a whole poem to a shipboard conjuror who can convince children that eggs can emerge from his mouth. But over and above this is the interest in perspective: one’s home becomes a pencil line seen from the back of a departing boat and, most interestingly, the perspective of time alters the entire experience into a metaphor:

Of the ship, memory makes a metaphor
with the passage of time,
its broad staircases and mint-green lino,
the portholed vision through a pristine hull
of ever-changing ocean, are the means
by which a new life is superimposed on the old.

And so (after this long introduction, fuelled by a desire to, in some way, get to grips with a poetry I have admired since I first read A Madder Dance) to Grass Notes. It is another fine book, working its way through and within its obsessions. In one of its poems, the idea of riding on a donkey’s back or in a ship (both images from “The Ship”) is transposed into the whimsical mode whereby the narrator is an ancient Roman being carried in a litter. This method of transport provides an “elevated view of things” but of course depends on an underworld:

                       Up here, the view

above the lice-infested heads
of those who clothe us, bake our bread,
might ripple under scrutiny
of carpers in a century

who fail to feel the roll and sway
of their own Rome in its heyday.

In other words, in ancient Rome compared with the present, as John Forbes said in a different context, “the machinery of capital’s more obvious”. The book’s title sequence deals with relationships between white settlers and indigenous inhabitants, a theme that seems more difficult to suppress and drive underground in Tasmania than on the mainland. Its poems ask a number of questions: what were the first indications? What did the artist of “View on the River Derwent” see or “not own to seeing”? How do the dead white gentlefolk sleep in their graves? And how could human beings deploy something as brutal as a mantrap (a kind of “oversize rabbit snare”)? The final poem of the group investigates the nest of a silvereye seeing in its sheep’s wool, human hair, horsetail hair, coloured thread from a washing line and the grass that makes a structural background, a kind of miniature artistic embodiment of colonial history. It’s a wonderful idea – a matter of perspective.

Again, as in the earlier books, there is a focus in these poems on the idea of the present and the immersion in this present. “Present Time” is a homely though complex little poem in which two people, positioned on ladders pruning apple and pear trees, look at each other:

Time never seems less linear
than when you are up a ladder
leaning on a winter’s sky,
selecting new wood from last season’s spurs
on the apples and pears.
Perhaps because hands have been working
to this same end through millennia
or perhaps the yearly repetition
of a simple task on brilliant days
such as today, when every tree bud and skin pore
is vivid as if viewed through magnifying glass,
this and all past years’ prunings
become simultaneous, so that time makes anathema
of the calendar and its meaningless numbers.
And I look up through pear wood to your face
squinting against a cold sun
and down to my feet at the strewn saplings,
the present moment saturates all given form
with past and future.

As I read it, looking into the partner’s face is not a matter of an experience “out of time” but one intense enough to focus all the elements of what is a regularly repeated experience. Thus all past lovers, pruners, growers, apple-eaters, celebrators of new growth, etc, lead to a single moment. It’s a variant of that peculiar perspective where we can think of ourselves and our current situation as something that the entire history of the universe has prepared for (as Hegel felt when he saw Napoleon entering Jena). A related poem, “Finding North” (its title significantly raising the issue of bearings), is a poem about a woman towing a small boy in a small boat, but its interest is in how this moment in the present relates to larger issues:

What does an elderly woman
towing a child, a small boy,
in an inflatable boat,
through shallow water
tell me about history?
. . . . .

is its opening gambit. And the poem goes on to imagine wider, cosmic perspectives that can say nothing about this image, concluding with the reality of the couple moving “as if in a spell / cast by the continuous present”. (I like the little grammatical joke in those last words – but that probably says more about me than the poem.) At any rate it supports my general view of this poetry – that for Day meditation on perspective is more poetically productive than engagement with immersion – by providing us with a memorable (though unexplorable) image. “Immersion” and “perspective” are both abstract nouns, but in Day’s poetry the latter serves so much better as a base for exploration than the former.

The book begins with a poem, “The Observatory”, which is about perspective and dimensions. Here the cosmic is allowed to penetrate the earth-sized, though this may only be at a metaphoric level:

The rattle of wind in sclerophyll
is the murmur of cosmic dust
and particle shift. With each break
in the clouds the queue shuffles
a patient step forward.
Beyond the observatory’s dim glow
bush is black as dark matter tonight;
the distant river is negative space, 
and the city on the other side
a scattered galaxy.
. . . . .

And the third poem, “Apples”, exploits Day’s neat connection of the humble with the macro by celebrating a fruit that has “weathered / the rise and fall of civilisations” to end up on an ordinary plate for our pleasure.

Some of the poems remind us that altering perspective is a technique for preventing poems sagging under the weight of their own subjects. A long poem devoted to lugging the heavy, dead body of a wombat off the road so that it can rot in a more dignified way (an activity which, by the way, recalls that of the second sister in the poem, “Voices from Ti-tree” in A Hunger to be Less Serious) has a surprise conclusion where the process of decay is mapped (in that movement Day’s mind often makes) as making a body recede “into two dimensions”. And a monologue from a funeral director’s point of view concludes, surprisingly with a withdrawal from assertiveness:

Empathy and imagination 
are what I bring
to the job. Humility
is what the job brings to me – 

in the calm or trepidation
of your warm hand.

And the book finishes with more poems about death, there the deaths of strangers and emigres. Death is a theme that appears in the later poems of The Ship, especially in “for JMR” where even the approach of death is seen as a matter of point of view and the author wants to ask – with that insistent interest in perspective – “how it all looked / from that distance”.