Sarah Holland-Batt: The Hazards

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2015, 93pp.

We’re sometimes told that second books are more important than first books in that the former often contain the multiple explorations of a poet’s early work – experiments in voice, style and subject which produce successful poems but which are not necessarily indications of a true, individual manner – whereas the latter give us some idea as to what a particular poet’s mature style is likely to be like. This isn’t always true of course; some poets find their distinctive way of thinking and writing in the first poem of their first book and all later developments spin out from there. Sarah Holland-Batt’s second book, the strikingly impressive The Hazards, is unusual in that it replicates the varied modes of her first book, Aria, almost exactly.

Rereading that first book, one can see that there are two basic modes: lament (for the failure of love affairs) and rhapsody, though a rhapsody that is rarely celebratory. Although The Hazards is a more substantial book, these two poles recur. The last section is almost entirely devoted to documenting the pain of amatory failure. Sometimes, as in “The Atlantic” (definitely an “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”!), a grotesque image of the external world is wedged, Lowell-like, against the body of the poem which is essentially narrative:

Now you lord it in a blue-blood job
that will make you a millionaire by forty . . .
If only I could wait. Yesterday’s Times said
more body parts washed in at Oak Beach:
Long Island Sound’s serial killer
stalks his hunting grounds while we sleep. . . .

“The Invention of Ether” is another piece which is Lowellian in manner, setting and allusions. The Boston Common, the setting of “For the Union Dead”, also contains a statue celebrating the discovery of ether, the first widely used medical analgesic. But though the poem longs to tap into this pain-killing ability, the pain returns (“Like a hammer to the knee / it jerks in and out of focus, always throbbing”). This poem also finishes with segment from a different world:

Still, I cling to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.

And then there is “Via dell’Amore” – “Nothing will destroy the Ligurian Sea / or that sheltered spot where we sat / by Riomaggiore’s corrugated rocks / and ate a loaf and Spanish salami . . .) where the failure is expressed both directly (“Was that the end of love? / No money, in no month to swim, / we stayed until failure hit the rock”) and through a clever image: the via dell’amore of the title is a lover’s pathway between two Ligurian villages but in this poem there is no movement and the stationary lovers are stranded in one of the villages.

What I’ve called the rhapsodic mode in both these books probably now needs some more careful description in that it refers to poetic form than content. Rhapsody is usually one of the forms of celebration but, though there is celebration here, it is often quite equivocal. The method of these poems involves a repeated introductory phrase. “Of Germany”, which opens the book’s third section of poems, very loosely about place, is a series of prepositional phrases beginning with “of”: “. . . of Berlin / on a Monday afternoon, of love / and of Germany, of the scrawny Dalmatian / running free in the Englischer Garten . . .” “No End to Images” – “No end to grief, never any end to that . . .” – does something similar with “no end to” and “O California” is set of objects for the phrase “I want”. Although the word “rhapsody” suggests a lack of structure, it really refers to a lack of conventionally accepted structure: how the thing is organised and how it is going to make its way to a fitting conclusion is, if anything, thrown into sharper relief. In “O California” the shape of the poem seems to be the dark underside of the sub-tropical paradise which is suggested all the way through (so that a list of roads includes “the death roads”) and which blossoms at the conclusion when the syntax switches from “I want” to “won’t you”:

                                 I want my perfect teeth
preserved, California, my teeth buried
in the earth like a curse, California, and won’t you show me
where the bodies are kept, California,
won’t you show me, show me, show me.

Something similar happens in “Of Germany” where after a concluding series of “ofs” – “of vanity and perishable memory, / of the invisible cats sleeping indoors / and the longest nights” we meet “the beautiful cars / that go so suicidally fast.” A poem from earlier in the book, “Approaching Paradise”, is overtly about the dark and light sides of a tropical beach environment – “Praise the bloated body washed in” – but is structured by continuous and unpredictable appearances of the central word, “paradise”.

The Hazards includes another sort of Holland-Batt subgenre that we met in Aria: the poem of a Queensland girlhood. “The Orchid House” is about the grandfather’s orchids, “Tropic Rain” – conceivably categorisable as a rhapsodic poem – is about Queensland storms, “Botany” is not about the bay but about school classes on mushrooms and the mysterious messages they leave, and “A Scrap of Lace” is about a grandmother’s lacemaking. “The House on Stilts” – which acknowledges Malouf as its inspiration – is about the underside of a Queensland house, “that wedge of darkness / chocked beneath our weatherboard”. All these seem to parallel poems like “Cavendish Road”, “The Woodpile” and “The Sewing Room” from Aria.

This all poses the question of whether The Hazards is essentially a revisiting of the possibilities opened up by Aria, containing, perhaps, more accomplished and confident poems, or whether it branches out into any kind of new territory. The differences, slight at first, turn out to be significant. And the main difference is that the “art” references in Aria are usually literary (Marquez, Chekhov, Dante, Carver etc) or musical (Rachmaninov, Puccini, Beethoven) whereas those in The Hazards seem to come largely from the visual arts. These include references – as well as responses to – paintings by Ingres, Lucian Freud, Botticelli, Matisse and others.

I have the sense, not entirely logical or supportable, that these paintings take Holland-Batt into rather different thematic areas. They certainly seem to lead into new areas structurally. They emphasise, as the poems about text and music do not, the idea of the moment of entry since paintings are “entered” in a rather different fashion. “Interbellum”, which is based on Hopper’s “Summer Evening”, a painting showing a couple on a porch in a patch of light and excluding everything else by banishing it into darkness, emphasises all those things which occur outside the frame, outside of the “crate of light”:

Late April: forsythia
             grafts to green wood,
napalms into blossom ”“

simple yellow in the yard, earnest,
             pliant as youth.
Inside, buttered rooms

are cooling . . .

The way in which “Against Ingres” enters the painting is by moving from an accurate, remote description of the painting’s subject to an imaginative entry into her life (“The women / she oiled faithfully every morning / are distant as the cries of a peacock / in the sultan’s garden”) and from there to an imagined interaction between the subject and the painter:

I’m tired, I’m cold, I’m hungry.
Ingres, it’s late, it’s raining, the servants
and girls are dreaming in bed
of knives and birds that cry like wolves
and by now even you must know
what it means when a woman turns
her back on you.

“Primavera: The Graces” enters Botticelli’s landscape (“See, we move through the black wood / like gods through time . . . “) to make the point that the endless circularity of the seasons is the opposite of the fate of the human which only gets one go at living. It seems to match the painting with Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”, beginning with oranges and ending with birds:

. . . . .
                Only the birds hurtling
like flung stones know the truth:
it is in the tiny fandango
of their pulse, in the leaves scratching
them through the air, in their descent
which is short and unspectacular
and spills out of them like wine.
Fear it: your lives are short too.

One of the most striking poems of The Hazards” is “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” which is, perhaps, about leaving painting for music. The poem is structured as a semi-comic farewell (possibly recalling MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”) to a universe ruled by light in favour of a “real” world accompanied by the sound of music:

. . . . .
Open the window: outside is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

Finally, there is “Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles” which seems the key text in these poems about paintings. It begins by listing a series of works – mainly paintings of violence – which “you do not want to enter” but finishes with one of those real life tableaux that we met in poems like “The Invention of Ether” and which may be a central part of Holland-Batt’s technical apparatus. Here she describes her father’s killing of a crow: the suggestion is that such autobiographical scenes are a good deal more difficult to “enter”. Whether this is a reference to the fact that entry is difficult for her audience who do not inhabit the same psychic landscape as the poet, or whether they are difficult for the writer to enter, either because they are emotionally raw or because they haven’t been pre-processed as “art”, I’m not sure. At any rate this poem stresses the significance of the act of entry just as, in its final lines, it stresses the importance of the eye, the organ of entry. There are eyes everywhere in these poems and they often attract the most pungent metaphorical language. The eye of the bird in “The Vulture” is “bubbled tar”, those of the eel in “Life Cycle of the Eel” are “flat as dishpans” and that of the bird in “The Macaw” is a “black bowl”.

The tone of almost all the poems of The Hazards is phenomenally self-confident, full of propositions (“Blue is not the colour of paradise”), injunctions (“Listen, I tell you: it is lonely / to scrape eyeless among the stars”) and descriptions of elevated personal experience (“Rain I have known like music, a tin oratorio . . .”) But what prevents this self-confidence from seeming overweening, even hubristic, is that you feel that at the core of the poems is the desire to annex new experience. Hence, if I try to force my method of always making an attempt to see underlying unities in a poet’s work, it could be said that the essential gesture at the core of Holland-Batt’s work so far is the “step into”. It’s perhaps for this reason that the poems relating to paintings, which, as I have said, represent worlds you can enter, take her work to profounder levels than in her first book.

Two early poems, “A Scrap of Lace” and “An Illustrated History of Settlement” may be interesting in this context. The first begins as a standard piece about childhood, speaking of a grandmother’s lace-making but makes a more interesting move than do most of these kinds of poems when the eye of poet tries to “enter” (I may be stretching my metaphor here) the world of the lace itself:

Sometimes I have lifted a piece
          of that lace up to the light
and tried to unwind it with my eye.
          I have never found an opening
in the lashes and loops of it,
          the cobwebbed knots . . .

The poem then opens into a “real” historical world of settlement Australia, describing a convict transported for stealing lace. Unlike the poems I’ve spoken of already, it isn’t a matter of jamming a grotesque reality (a “skunk moment”) onto the end of an interior poem. Here it is a genuine modulation, eased by the pun on “lashes” but not caused by it. “An Illustrated History of Settlement” is another ekphrastic piece which describes Fox’s painting of Cook’s arrival. Its method is the opposite of the work itself in which everything is designed to highlight the central figure. This poem wants to begin with the fringes and focus on them, only slowly working towards the centre:

. . . . .
And here in the foreground, a Rubenesque swell
of redcoats tumbling over the beach
like a flock of exotic birds.
Faces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness.
Thighs bulging in white breeches.

And a man in the centre with his arm outstretched – 
This is often where the eye enters.

And often leaves.

In terms of historical method this seems to express no more than the contemporary cliché that true history lies not in the great actors but in the ordinary, forgotten people. But the poem is saved from cliché by its deployment of a notion of entering which has been made more complexly resonant by occurring in so many other poems.

Eyes and entries. It makes one realise the importance a poem like “Galah’s Skull” where the poet finds a bird’s skull with a worm in one eyesocket which seems to want to root itself like a fern. The entire scene is a complex metaphor in which “one eye [is] rolled to the daylight moon / the other pressed down into the earth”. And then there is “The Vulture”, the first of a series of poems about animals. The vulture is the processing machine, the “Shaman of transfiguration”, the “afterlife of all things”. But what stays with me from this poem, which grows stronger the more you reread The Hazards, is the way he is introduced in the first line of the poem where he “leans out of himself / into morning”. I read this as the essential gesture of entering (the poem goes on at length to describe how he enters the dead bodies of animals) and thus I have grown to see him as perhaps the totemic beast of the poems of this fine collection.

John Leonard (ed.): Young Poets: An Australian Anthology

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2011, 162pp.

If Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets gave a large number of poets a brief, walk-on appearance, this anthology of John Leonard’s presents far fewer poets at much greater length. The generation reflected here is also slightly younger than that in Thirty Poets since Simon West, the oldest, is a venerable thirty-seven. Presenting only seven poets has both advantages and disadvantages. On the debit side the selection of the poets to be included becomes less inclusive and hence more contentious. Leonard deflects this courteously in his preface by implying that his choice is one of informed subjectivity – “the poems in this anthology impress me as having a true distinction in quality and, personally, they move me” – and avoiding any comments about omissions or about the way this group might realte to other groups of poets of a similar age which could have been chosen. The enormous advantage is that readers get a twenty-page slab of poetry by each of the poets, enough to get some kind of idea as to what their poetry is actually like.

This leads me to the first of a couple of issues. The first is: Who exactly is the book for? At first I thought of it as a generous sampler for the John Leonard Press since three of the poets – Elizabeth Campbell, LK Holt and Petra White – have each had two books published by that valuable enterprise. But the tone of the Preface, focussing on the experience of reading contemporary poetry, looks very educational and it may be that this is a book imagined for undergraduate or better high school students. It would be nice for it to be successful if that is the case since what is happening now amongst writers young enough to be an older brother or sister of their reader is always more enticing for that reader than what has been done by generations before. The problem is, of course, that the contemporary is always difficult since it hasn’t had time to be fitted into a reading culture. The other objection to choosing a book like this as an educational text is that students need to be exposed to a full tradition, but this is nicely deflected when Leonard points out that this generation of poets, more perhaps than most, is informed by the poetry of the past and the possible connections it can make with that poetry. At any rate, this would be a good project to repeat for the next generation of poets, perhaps in ten or fifteen years.

The second issue doesn’t so much relate to the book per se but is a reviewer’s problem. How does one deal with a selection made up of few poets and large selections? Anthologies like the recent Australian Poetry Since 1788 and Thirty Poets ask to be considered externally. They are not really reading experiences so much as constructs that one wants to explore. If the reviewer is good enough, there will be some generational or national generalisations to be made. But you aren’t likely to find yourself talking about individual poets, let alone individual poems. The emphasis in Young Poets is squarely upon the output of seven poets and one is, at least at some stage, going to be talking about poets and their poems. Since I have written elsewhere on this site about all of these poets apart from Bonny Cassidy and LK Holt, I have used this opportunity to do some revisiting and some rethinking. I suspect that, as I write, the book in which they appear will melt away in favour the poems and poets which appear in it, almost as though it were no more than a group of pamphlets.

To begin with the first of the two poets I haven’t previously written about in detail, the poems of Bonny Cassidy are probably the most challenging in the book. They are in what is usually called a “post-Poundian” mode that is always going to be at odds with the kind of explorative free verse of contemporary Australian poetry, reflected in the work of the other poets of this book. In fact “post-Olsonian” might be more accurate though the amount of personal detail would have irritated a man opposed to the “lyrical ego”. You might find a connection with some of the poems of Laurie Duggan but his is really a kind of poetic anthropology, absorbed by cultures and their signs and seeing geology, say, more as a determining frame than a subject in itself. At any rate, Cassidy’s poetry is marked by its experimenting with an unusual mode and I am, consequently, on its side. This kind of poetry never takes itself for granted and so, whether it is talking about Margaret Stones’s botanical art or about the “recent” geological history of New Zealand, it will always have, as an undertone, the theme of what it is doing, how it is seeing. “Range” is a good example of this, beginning with sight and sound and quickly moving into a kind of self-directed imperative:

     A bird breaks
itself down, ties
its rune into a knot.

Always begin with a bird, like ruling a line
that stretches into angles . . .

This five-part poem is about the act of describing (it ends, “describing what you have seen”) and as such is about “creativity”. But even more it is about profoundly metaphysical issues since it seems to presume a particular relationship between the natural world and the observer. On the basis of the twenty pages of poetry here, it seems to reflect that American perspective of the way the self interacts with nature, but Australia has no tradition of transcendentalism or even of the kind of observer represented by someone like Ammons, so one wonders whether it is a model that has been, can be, or was intended to be, transported across the Pacific. Certainly the long section fom “Final Theory” included here (a Prologue and the first of four parts) seems quite distinctive, largely because it contains such a personal element – in fact, in many respects it seems as much a love poem as a registering of the geography, culture, botany and geology of New Zealand. The dynamism of the poem seems to derive from its exploration of scales, the delicious disjunctions between geological time-scales, for example, and the lives of the couple which the poem traces. It is certainly an issue that the poem returns to regularly:

That new space was dense with actuality. Its absurd
became acceptable, for instance, everything was middle
Distance arrived from above and stayed until cloud locked us
 . . . . .

And, inevitably, like “Range” we expect it to foreground the processes of its own creation. When it does this the self is there again, not a purified self or an observing infiltrator but a “full-scale” emotionally-engaged-with-one’s-partner self:

Here is the poem, slowed by oil and grit,
to be shed and worn
as a skin.
Form may once have had some salvaging power,
but these days we let form whirl out of hand
like a camera in a Frisbee;
and see that order and delay cannot be made from space
     and time,
how could they?
All my words are gunning for extinction, all they can tell
     us is:
live more.
The photos you retrieve are a scream -
heart-battering reams of fortune, shadow and sleep,
as if "the sun fell . . . or leapt."

Your fidget-bone shrinking the aperture,
the flint of your lens against glacial gates

impose a double: lichen and hubcap
printed across one another

like two hands braced against the light, a herald for the

I like “Final Theory” as I do the other poems in this twenty-page selection. I can understand that many readers won’t and would prefer poems more like those produced, say, by Caroline Caddy’s trip to the Antarctic. I can also understand that many readers will, sourly, claim that an extended sequence like “Final Theory”, as well as the longer sequences here by Elizabeth Campbell and Simon West are part of the corruption of the modern world in which poets need to write long sequences either (a) to meet the (understandable) requirements of valuable prizes (b) make a coherent project for a Creative Writing higher degree dissertation or (c) make a coherent project that will attract (what a mysterious metaphor that is!) Literature Board funding. But there is a lot of intriguing puzzling about poetry itself in “Final Theory” – not only covering how it should be done but also what it is and how it is generated by the cultures of the people who come after the geology is, more or less, completed. I find it challenging and exciting and want to see the other three parts.


Reading the two books of LK Holt is quite an experience. On the surface all one can see is the enormous confidence in her own poetic processes. She is the kind of poet for whom dramatic monologues or narratives from the point of view of an engaged and dramatically conceived narrator seem the natural habitat, possessing, as they always seem to, a Browningesque rhythmic drive and a fullness of poetic imagination and empathy. In a series of sonnets here, taken from her second book, we meet the Kafka of “Metamorphosis” just waking, a drunk who has walked into a door, a protestor who has just been struck in the head by a rubber bullet, someone beginning work in a ship-breaking yard, Lorca at the moment of execution, a boy out of control with rage who is shot by police and Douglas Mawson at an especially sticky moment. There is also a poem from a sequence spoken by Goya’s housekeeper and a long sequence, “Unfinished Confession”, spoken by a pre-op sex change patient. I’ll quote the opening lines of the first of these – the Kafka poem – as being in some way typical of what I’m trying to describe:

It is a mandible language, ours; one of release
or grasp; a byzantine binary of yes, no (yes);
the shellac click of stag beetles all het up.
Dear Franz you should love whom you want to
and hard - forget about the world's wanton
fathering and mothering . . . both will bear on
past your little momentous death.
Our parents always outlive us in a sense . . . 

This is terrific stuff – I especially like “your little, momentous death” – but sheer confident monologic energy like this always induces doubts in the reader and leads us to wonder whether it might not all be just a particularly impressive kind of dramatic rhetoric. What we need is some kind of indication of what the poet’s stake in these monologues is. Or, at least, the conviction that somewhere underneath there is a stake. It is hard to imagine a biography which is in some way engaged with all the poems I’ve sketched in above. I’d like to believe that the tension beneath them is not one of content but rather of form: that they represent a kind of public face to a poet who does actually have doubts. Perhaps they are doubts about the very ease with which they seem to have been written. We know in the case of other poets – I’ve already mentioned Browning – that the poems of most certainty are often the poems of most doubt. But you would have to know a lot of a poet’s biography before you could speak cponfidently about generative mechanisms as profound as this.

All this will lead to the fairly obvious conclusion that I like best those poems of Holt’s which are personal and slightly weird. Amongst the sonnets there is a lyric (which I deliberately omitted in my list) describing how an old door is transformed to a table and then a garden bench. It has the same confident assertive style as the monologues and is, I suppose, not much more than a brief allegory (what was recently marked out as a feature of contemporary poetry: “the significant anecdote”) but it still has resonances and intriguing tensions (between, for example, denotative description and a rather more high-flown conclusion) that are harder to find in the monologues. Two poems, “Poem for Nina” and “Poem for Brigid” seem to me to stand out in this selection. They are personal poems about the author’s very stake in the friendships they describe and they are complicated and not at all predictable: always a good sign in a poem.


I have looked at length in past reviews at Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry. She looks strong no matter how or where her poems are presented. Here, by virtue of the fact that the poets of the book are organised alphabetically, she is the lead-off voice and her poems look more than comfortable in that responsible position. Given that Error, her second book, was published last year, it’s reasonable that only one of these poems is new. That poem, “Black Swans”, is intriguing because it is a meditation on error – in the sense of inheriting a way (through ideology or cultural tradition) of seeing things which determines what we see – that takes one of the most famous of the Ern Malley poems as its core context. This, of course, is yet another testimony to the unkillableness of an imaginary poet who died thirty-seven years before Campbell was born and Campbell’s generation is one of the first (of many, presumably) for whom the story of Ern Malley, Max Harris and the hoaxers will not be one soaked in the irritations of literary polemics. The Ern Malley poem in question here, “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495” is, itself, a version of a poem of McAuley’s which he was unhappy with, a poem which is about a painting and in which the poet finds himself a “robber of dead men’s dream”. If this poem is about artistic revenancy then “Black Swans” is about conceptual revenancy for although she is an avenging angel, coming to destroy:

we still hope
to cut her open and find bedded neatly inside
goose, duck, chicken, quail: all the known unknowns.

Poetry, philosophy, economics: the mind
repeats, in its ignorance, the vision of others:

all swans are white, all swans are white.

The other poems selected include two of the horse poems from Letters to the Tremulous Hand as well as two of the best poems in Error, “The Diving Bell” and “Brain” – both strong poems about various glitches in body and brain. These two poems, together with the sequence, “Inferno”, lead one to think that Campbell (together with West and White) might be trying to work out answers to the question of what a body/soul distinction for the twenty-first century could look like. We also get a chance to revisit that difficult sequence, “A Mon Seul Desir”, based on the famous series of late fifteenth century tapestries. It is a far from straightforward sequence and, as I’ve labored over it in my earlier review, I’ll spare readers a revisiting. John Leonard’s comment in the introduction, perhaps concerned that readers might run aground on the sequence which, after all, appears quite early in the whole book, recommends reading it as a poem about love, rather than an exploration of obscure late medieval art, and I suspect that that is a good tactic, at least for initial readings.


Sarah Holland-Batt is the author of perhaps the most likeable set of poems in this book, though that adjective has no implications, good or bad, about quality. It’s just that her work seems to be nicely pitched between accessible and questing. She also has (together with Graeme Miles) the highest percentage of new work after her debut volume Aria. If I had to hazard a guess as to the direction of this newer work – always dangerous when based on such a small sample – I’d say that it is definitely less emotionally expressionist than the earlier. Many of the complex poems in Aria seemed at heart, either opportunities for lament or opportunities for celebration. The self is present in these new poems but not at such a dominating level. An exception is “Rain, Ravello” which seems in the earlier mode: a long description of rain eventually establishes itself in the reader’s mind as a sympathetic exterior response to internal misery and the poem finishes, “Art is not enough, not nearly / enough, in a world not magnified by love”.

The other poems seem a lot breezier, focusing on life sciences and art. “Orange-Bellied Parrot” is like a cross between a Robert Adamson bird poem and Bruce Dawe’s “Homecoming”, enacting an imaginary return made by a stuffed parrot in the British Museum (surely the ultimate in exilic misery) to his homeland. “Botany” recalls the school experiment of mapping the spores of various mushrooms, while the poet interprets the results differently, seeing “a woodcut winter cart and horse / careen off course . . .” But one wouldn’t want to take these too sunnily. A brilliant poem, “The Quattrocento as a Waltz” celebrates the freedom of a new art style in abandoning the tyranny of the religious – here a sun-dominated, top-down world of stiff madonnas – and celebrating the real of the world, even if that real is a world of misery:

Let the darkness shake out its bolt of silk.
Let it roam over us like a blind tongue.
Let it bury its razorblades in the citrons
and its hooks in the wild pheasants.
Open the window: outside it is Italy.
A fat woman is arguing over the artichokes,
someone is dying in a muddy corner,
there’s a violin groaning in the street.

And other poems such as “Primavera: The Graces” and “Medusa” slide the poet into the poems as an allegorical and not necessarily positive figure – here too the emphasis is on suffering and death. “Persephone as a Whistling Moth”, far from the best poem in the group, is perhaps the clearest in that it takes a mythological figure who oscillates between the dark and the light (as so many of the poems of Aria do) and crosses her with another poetic myth of the moth and the flame.


The poems of Graeme Miles seem a long way from those of his first book, Phosphoresence, though, probably, there are evolutionary links I can’t, from a superficial rereading, trace. He seems a poet anchored in the mundane, especially the mysterious mundane of family and ancestors, but at the same time obsessed by the presence of things within other things. A fine sequence, “Photis”, deals with a painter in whose portraits animals continuously seem to emerge and from whose body a child eventually emerges, whose “soft skin is full of animals”. Ghosts of relatives past emerge from the liminal spaces in “Verandah” and in “At 30 Clifton Street”, the house seems to induce visions of its own ghosts. As one can imagine, dreaming is an important part of this world since dreams are yet another sort of poem with a complex and usually unresolvable relationship with the waking world and a poem about sleep, “Mineral Veins”, concludes with:

          Better to turn down,
find you can breathe easily under a world's weight
of earth, and that air was no more your element
than the endlesss vacancy it fades to.

As one can also imagine there is a lot of interest in transformation, Ovid’s obsession: it occurs at the level of myth in “Isis and Osiris” and at the level of a kind of humorous surrealism in a poem like “Talking Glass” (I went to find pasta for the wary / to prepare their pianos. I tried to speak, / knowing that I’d spoken pasta / in the past, but now there was broken glass / between my teeth . . .”
So in the case of this poet, ordinary events in life are likely to produce poems whose interests and structures are not at all obvious ones. A good example is the final poem, “Where She Went”, which is about the death of his grandmother (at least I assume it is: one has to be careful about making casual unequivocal assumptions about relationships. It is a marker of how young these poets are that the deaths which occur to them are those of their grandparents. Very soon it will be the deaths of parents and, in no time at all, the deaths of friends and contemporaries!):

Shade inks a human on the surface of the water,
brings it from a lostness so complete
that only this skeletal light
and athletic paperbark are lean enough to reach it.
It's reformed by remotest coincidence of lines,
dreamed by shade from the bones up
replaced where it never was.
Skinny land and paperbark
are the brassy echo of a wooden room
beside a deeper lake,
where the same figure saw her face shift in the mirror
like a friend she couldn't trust.
Rooms were closed then and vigils sat through.
Strangers covered the mirrors she'd left
and motes of dust fell one by one
precise as the knife-thrower's act in a circus.
They waltzed the wardrobe back from the doorway
and sold her clothes.
And she passed the white rock
which some said was a headland
too steep for goat's feet,
and some said was a marker stone
set into grey soil dry as ash,
a white stone just big enough
to overfill palm and fingers,
cool as liquid overflowing
and with weight to make you think of fractures.

This a poem that moves in four magical stages from the shadows on the water suggesting the woman (not in a simply Rorschach way, but in a much profounder movement from the deeps to the surface). Then it moves to the woman’s room and her funeral and then, surprisingly, to a description – which sounds like the Classical world – of moving beyond a boundary stone. But it doesn’t end there because the stone is imagined declining in size from  headland to marker to fist-sized. These are unusual emphases and markers of a very distinctive poetic mind.


Simon West is a tricky but impressive poet who seems highly sensitive both to dislocation and also its opposite: the moments when – and processes whereby – we emerge from a dislocated state. It’s a poetry where we always seem to be crossing thresholds. “Out of the Woods of Thoughts” – whose title seems to allude simultaneously to Dante’s selva oscura (an image that recurs in this poetry) as well as the wood of the suicides of Inferno XIII – is a good example.

We woke with the crook of our arms empty.
Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove
would probe about our yard,
"coo-ca-cai?" A nag and clamour
I couldn't help but hear as "cosa fai?"

Mostly summer turned away, tightened
to a knot of roots at river's edge,
where earth erodes from a red gum,
unable to grip things, and strangely exposed.

No use saying "it was him not me",
or "dispel the senses and repeat, The mind lies".
Even the faintest trails led back to that weight
cradled in the stomach's pit.
What was it doing? What did it have to say?

These seems an excellent introduction to the West-world especially its quality of being simultaneously precise and yet slippery. It’s a world where we move from sleep to waking, dreams to everyday, from natural speech into language, from the constructing, rational mind to the immanent natural.

A precious eight pages of the allotted twenty are devoted to a long and difficult sequence, “A Valley”, which is obviously central to where West’s poetry is at this point and which recalls many of these processes. It is not an easy sequence to get a handle on and consequently – if a reader is honest – not an easy set of poems to like. It is, like “Out of the Woods of Thought” about emerging from a dark wood, an emergence that happens in the last two poems. But the nature of the valley in which the protagonist is trapped for the other fifteen poems of the sequence is difficult to feel confident about. To what extent it is a conceptual one, and to what extent it is emotional (even, allegorically, personal) is really difficult to determine though, if Dante is the model, I suppose the same could be said of the Commedia. It is perfectly possible that it is imagined to be a valley of monolinguality broken out of by mastering a second language.

“Out of the Wood of Thoughts” contained an odd middle section where the roots of a red gum are “strangely exposed” by erosion and West is very sensitive to the texture and grain of wood.  “The Apricot Tree” seems on the surface a poem about childhood where the environment is symbolised by a rather grotesquely split apricot tree used as a set of cricket stumps by the boys. It begins, significantly, “I try to home in on this” but the poem’s conclusion takes it away into the inner life of the split and exposed wood:

I'd seen that wound open in wood. Under

a hard rind the core's gore colours
lay like a deep bruise: a reversal

or confirmation from within
of stone fruit, and equally alive.

In “Door Sill”, another childhood memory poem, that piece of wood is an unpainted slab of redgum which marks the boundary between the domestic house and the outer world:

It was a threshold we loved
to tilt ourselves on the rim of,
leaning forward on tiptoes . . .

The selection includes “Marnpi Rockhole by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri” from West’s first book. On first reading that looked very atypical, even positively out of place. But now seems more central because it concerns art and the way art deals with the conceptual maps we put over the endless flux of the universe. As such, this genuinely incomprehensible painting seems like a gateway to a quantum world and reflects West’s interest in the texture of the worlds revealed by the dissolution of surfaces.


Petra White seems to be a poet who continually wants to connect a fraught self with the outside world. From the poems in this anthology we can sketch in a childhood amongst people at the dottier end of protestantism, depression and despair, and a seriously sick lover. The first of these appears in the first poem, “Grave”, but also in “Trampolining” where the speaker and her brother save for a trampoline while the adults take part in a suburban prayer meeting. The experience of the trampoline is one of ecstatic movement in the world, significantly oscillating between earth and sky, taking place “in the present-tense, / cast off by the adults for the kids to play with”.  The desire to connect self with the world raises a lot of issues. Like Elizabeth Campbell, she is interested, for example, in the relationship between the self and the natural world. “Ode to Coleridge” deals with the body/soul distinction but not in any academic way: the issue of whether a sick soul sees the world only as dull and lifeless (Coleridge’s position) or whether the world can heal the soul (Wordsworth’s) is a crucial question in White’s poetry. 

The poem which engages with the world at its most “social” is “Southbank” an eleven part sequence based in a Melbourne work situation. At first it seems a minor piece of social recording but rereadings show it to be far more complex and engaging. Amongst the parodies of business-speak – “I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy / joins the Networks & / Infrastructure Team to give cover . . .” – there is an examination of what it means to be a suited worker in an industry designed to provide aid to people in need “out there”. The answer, I think, lies in the Heidegger comment, included in the poem, that we only see how things work when they break down (a statement that expresses, after the event, the entire rationale of Modernism as a broad cultural phenomenon). The Melbourne office is, in the last poem, “a portal, / point of stillness from which the world extends” and many of the poems want to explore this movement from a shakily-secure self into wider worlds of experience. We see it schematically in both “Woman and Dog” and in “Kangaroos”. In the latter poem the rows of dead kangaroos by the roadside are tribute to the fate of those moving through experience who make the wrong choice, “one wrong leap against / thousands of right ones; thousands of hours / lived hurtling through space with no notion of obstacle”. They act, finally, both as guardians of new worlds and as psychopomps for humans:

Always turning to leave, wider to go -
they emerge in dissolving light as if they carry
the Earth in their skins, as if they are the land they inhabit . . .
it stares at you through them, looks through you
in the shared-breath stillness, their telepathic here now
group hesitation. As if something's deciding
whether to let you in or through. As if there was an opening,
a closing. Then turning away again, loping off
into that open where death stands to one side (you imagine)
and each leap is a leap into deeper life, deeper possession.

It’s a constant movement in this poetry to desire a deeper life, starting, as it does, from a vulnerable self. There is a profound difference between the young girl in “Ricketts Point” who, playing at the water’s edge “suddenly marvels at how the world / tips open to a broad deep space, not fearsome” and the damaged self of “St Kilda Night” for whom the beach is a nightmare experience:

Stripped to the soul, squatting at the shoreline,
thoughts prey like sharks but never bite,
no voice inside the skull sounds right.
O listen to the tiny waves crash their hardest,
as a lap-dog yaps its loudest to be loud.
Pitched past pitch of grief: how far is that?
. . . . .

Whereas many of the poems in this anthology derive their strength from complex conceptual approaches to life and writing, White’s are strong because of the fractures that generate them. There is nothing sensationally “confessional” about them but the underlying dis-ease makes all the issues – self, world, society – crucial ones.



Sarah Holland-Batt: Aria

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008, 62pp.

In the last few years Australian poetry has seen a number of exciting debut collections and Sarah Holland-Batt’s Aria is another that can be included in that happy genre. In fact it is a knockout collection and this came as something of a surprise to me since I had met only a few of the poems in journals when preparing for our annual Best Australian Poetry anthologies and, when seen in their journal incarnation, they were far too disjointed to show a reader how they wanted to be read.

For a first book Aria is very coherent despite the fact that it is full of different modes. The poems seem to be strung between two poles. There is an overwhelming sensation of lost love and grief which drives the poems towards brevity and stasis and, at the other extreme, a kind of escape into longer poems which inhabit the sky rather than the ground. I’m immensely taken with these more optimistic, freer, longer works. Their mode is operatic and rhapsodic and it is no surprise that the book’s major cultural references are late-high-romantic: Rachmaninov, Puccini and Mahler. Hence also the abrupt title, Aria.

We meet the conjunction between loss of love and stasis as early as the book’s second poem, “Shore Acres”. It’s a powerful piece:

. . . . . 
But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;
the water is static as land, and stripes
of foam bone its slate like a corset.
We are here for the end of movement.
You stay to watch the ocean. I go back
to the Japanese garden . . .

One of the impressive things about this poem is the way it embeds exhaustion into the movement of the poem itself and it does this while retaining the generally enjambed style that, in other, different poems, keeps the whole thing moving quickly. Even the book’s epigraph from The Cherry Orchard, “I know that happiness is coming, Anya, I see it already”, subtly associates happiness with movement.

In an odd way, loss of love and the resultant state of psychic depression are unpromising material poetically. They are potent, resonating experiences but that is all: they don’t encourage verbal coruscations, for example, the way a rhapsodic response to the natural world can. They can result in a continual grinding down which produces a poetry which is spare to the point of being minimalist. This is reached, I think, by a three line poem, “Laughter and Forgetting”:

We have no name for this wilful happiness.
We just wake to it every morning, in love,
but one always loving the other a little less.

It’s a small brilliant piece, balancing happiness and grief, but one couldn’t make a whole poetry out of this mode. I think “Letter to Robert Lowell” is an attempt to resolve this difficulty. It’s an act of mimicry, overtly copying the Lowell of “Skunk Hour” and “Night Sweat”. The last two stanzas will give some idea of it:

The traffic crawls toward the Tower Mill.
Two o’clock: in my left temple
a migraine builds: jots
and temporary sketches
skid across my field of vision,

two white dots conjoined, twinning
like the searchlights they raked
the river with last night.
A suicide. The man
couldn’t swim, and washed in with the tide.

If I had to guess what was happening in this poem, I would say that Holland-Batt, by briefly inhabiting the poetic method of Lowell (a method in which a diseased mind imposes itself on the environment, isolating stories and sites of misery) allows pain into a poem without the movement towards stasis that this usually involves. In fact the movement is towards baroque elaboration. I said that it was an act of mimicry: it might be more accurate to say that it is borrowing the mode of a vastly different writer and trying it on (perhaps with a wry apology to its owner) as though it were a coat. Something similar happens in “Not a Life, But Like One” which looks like an imitation of one of the Americans (James Wright, Galway Kinnell?) who do wintry stoniness well: “Lights over the bridge. The coldest wind. / And a little rain straining to make itself heard / on the way down to the river.”

Interestingly, “Francesca in the Second Circle” seems, by introducing Dante’s notion of Hell, to contradict the poet’s overall scheme because the essence of the punishment of the lovers is that they do move: they run before the dark wind which symbolizes the passions they were damned for. Paradise is the static place and Hell (or at least its upper reaches) is a place of miserable movement. The poem makes sure that it harmonizes with the overall scheme of things by emphasizing – as Dante does – that the movement is circular. And so, as I read it, Francesca prefers the continuous and cyclic revisiting of misery which is a kind of stasis. She, after all, is the one who famously says, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in times of misery” and I like the idea that this might hint that her depressed state remorselessly forces her to revisit the good times like probing a bad tooth.

Two poems, “Late Aspect” and “The Art of Disappearing” are about one of the results of stasis in that the poet gets subtracted from the entire scene. At least this is what seems to happen in the former poem where the objects of existence remain but they are no longer animated by a perceiving human presence – rather as in Coleridge’s “Dejection Ode”:

As for the veranda: it is empty.
A windchime sieves the air, and the cicadas
emerge like metal stars.
The night is preoccupied with its own story:
the unpainted ladder flush against white
weatherboard; a curl of dry duct tape spiralling
from the tennis racket like an apple peel;
the fierce, unfilled shadow eclipsing the hammock.
This evening I have abandoned the possibility
my questions will be answered in a voice
I can understand, and but for my present
outlines I disappear, my face covered
by the haggard, smoky sky; the garden, the night
ringing with the sawing pulse of insects, that unison
for which there is no human word.

I really like this poem because it is so intelligently intense: it is a long way from a howl of misery. In its almost dispassionate look at what is going on among the objects of the world the world during grief, it reminds me of John Scott’s great poem, “’Changing Room’” which finishes:

She’s leaving; and the similes are gone.
A borrowed room, and everything quite suddenly
and only like itself: this coat, this coat.
          This floor, this floor.

Then there are the longer poems. These are not consistently or simply rhapsodic but what is happening in them is very different. I think they all share a freedom of poetic movement and this movement itself gives the impression of a freer poetic imagination. Of course, in “Rachmaninov’s Dream”, the composer dreams his dream – simultaneously of the lost past and the frightening future – while composing the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini so this poem is literally in a rhapsodic milieu.

I think the most important of these longer poems is “Remedios the Beauty” a sort of dramatic monologue from the point of view of Garcia Marquez’s famous levitating washerwoman. It is hard to resist a reading of it which makes it an allegory about the writing of the very poems I am speaking about. In this reading Remedios’ flights are the poet’s flights as she explores the freedoms of composition in an extended mode. What is striking are the unpredictable twists and turns of the poem which can thus symbolize the freedoms in this all-movement mode. Look at the first dozen lines, for example:

Levitation is easy. I am at home
with the peregrines; I move
in their registers, where each small kindness - 
a quick kill, mercy – passes, weightless
and unremarked. Gusting thermals bring
me parallel to the sky’s cusp, papered
and insubstantial as a sucked egg.
Here, time rounds its edges through wires
of nimbus. It could be years. The names
of small things – animals, stones – flake
away, fish splintered from the spine,
the jacket lifting, curled and loose.
My body comes into a new lightness.
Surrounded by snow, water washing
water then thawing it, letters fall 
in the drifts, the crystalline seraphs
dissolving into a vast dark stretch . . .

And so on, including revisiting earth. As I’ve said, it seems a poem which celebrates the freedoms possible in its own making. And the continuous enjambments of Holland-Batt’s style mean not so much that we misread lines as that two separate meanings can run concurrently. So in the first line, Remedios is home (in her grandmother’s house on earth) and by the second she is home in the sky.

We always search, in the work of a new poet, for a “poem-poem”, a poem which works as a kind of allegory of what the author thinks a poem is. “Remedios the Beauty” might well fill that role in Aria, but so might a small poem, “Materials”, which appears in the middle of the book:

I am trying to understand memory,
how it is that after all the falling and failing
these floorboards still sing. Woodsmen
sounded this cedar so the emperor could sleep,
and each mournful creak has carried
centuries. So my feet practise
a broken music scored for his enemies.
The men who built these halls understood:
best not to think it will last forever.
House the emperor in paper and wood.

Unfortunately, it is one of those frustrating poems that you suspect are perfectly straightforward from the author’s perspective but which elude a reader’s grasp. There is a reference to the “nightingale floors” which Japanese carpenters built deliberately so that they would squeak when used: this was a security device that made it difficult for an assassin to approach the Emperor, though what it did for the sleep of the Emperor himself, I’m not sure. One way of reading the poem is to respond to the author’s initial admiration for the fact that these things still work after several hundred years: you house Emperors in wood and you house memories in poems and, if you are lucky, those poems will resonate down the years, still working for casual visitors years from now. Or we could focus on the fact that the author comments that her walking on the floors is exactly what the enemies of the Emperor do. If we allegorize the Emperor as memory then the poem might be saying that the only way memory can be approached is through processes that are inimical to it. That would make it a much bleaker poem, epistemologically: the approach to experience destroys the experience. I’m not sure.

Back to the abrupt title. Are there any other books of Australian poetry with such a small (four letters) title? It’s the kind of question which, in a civilized country, might occupy pundits on a TV program. There turn out to be (according to a quick search in my shelves) a number of five letter titles (Anna Couani’s Italy, Kris Hemensley’s Trace, Philip Hammial’s Swarm, for example) but as far as I can see only two other five letter titles: Judy Johnson’s Jack (Pandanus Books, 2006) and Philip Roberts’ Crux (Island Press, 1973). At any rate, it’s obviously important to the author that the book should choose something that represents the more optimistic reach of the binary. The first time I read it, I thought that “the end of movement” – or even “here for the end of movement” (a phrase from the book’s second poem) – might be a better, because more striking, title but that would only have reflected the bleaker component of Holland-Batt’s vision.