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?”