Sarah Holland-Batt: The Jaguar

St Lucia: UQP, 2022, 127pp.

Sarah Holland-Batt’s brilliant new book is very much built around her father’s long illness and eventual passing. Not only is it the subject of the book’s first of four sections but the final section, which looks like being – like the third section of her previous book, The Hazards – about place and culture, is distorted, as it progresses, into poems about firstly her grandfather and his place – Gibraltar during the war – and finally her father in the long concluding sequence, “In My Father’s Country”. Not that readers of Holland-Batt’s work won’t have met the father before. He appears in “The Woodpile” an early poem of her first book, Aria, chopping wood in what seems to be a symbolically significant scene: the stacked wood encourages decay and various kinds of spider although “the heartwood burnt longest”. And in “Embouchure” and “The Flowers on His Bedside Speak of Eternity”, both from The Hazards, we re-encounter him, this time in a serious stage of the illness. The grandfather, especially his painting, also appears in two poems of Aria. In the light of the intense focus of The Jaguar, these seem like preliminary sketches, poems more interested in the poet’s unease than in forensically describing the father’s illness and seeing how something so extended and debilitating can be approached by poetry. We also find a reference to her father’s death in her excellent book of brief studies of individual Australian poems, Fishing for Lightning, when she looks at Brendan Ryan’s “A Father’s Silences” as an example of elegy. She has a response that reminds me of my own when my first child was born: astonishment at the fact that the world seemed to be going on in its ordinary way as though it were unaware that something earth-shattering had occurred. Of course, she met with “things dying, I with things newborn”.

If one compares “The Burr” – the first poem of “In My Father’s Country” – with the first poem of the final section of the book itself, “Driving Through Drystone Country”, you can see how one of her many talents – the ability to deal with landscape in a verbally tactile way – is given an allegorical twist that in no way reduces the verbal intensity. “Driving Through Drystone Country” contains what I think is a non-symbolic registration of environment:

. . . . . 
Bronze field barns
slope in local vernacular -
sandstone cubed with a level eye,

quoins of gritstone
bracketing each corner.
Slovenly roofs pitch

over hay store and cow stall -
industry of the particular -
and everywhere the regular metre

of drystone walls, 
arrowheads of shale
fitted with flagstone precision. . .

This is brilliant of its kind – I like the way “pitch” is converted from a noun to a verb – but its kind is registration, the proof for us readers of poetry that prose must attain a pretty high level before it can bring off anything like this when, in a novel, especially, it enters one of its descriptive passages.

The opening of the first of the eleven poems that make up “In My Father’s Country” has the same kind of precise evocative registration:

It is guesswork, this slatternly backcountry
I climb in darkness:

ice shirring gunmetal moors,
each hillock and rise

a cairn of tortoise stones,
slate in skid and trip steps . . .

but here it is overlaid by the way the poet is entering the landscape. Here it is not a matter of just registering but of deploying the idea of a trip through the landscape of her father’s origins in Yorkshire (I think) as being simultaneously a search for him. And “a search for him” is also allegorical since it is a search to understand the parent whom she has been watching unravel during his long decline. In fact, the second poem of this sequence says:

                    Your dying

has taken the better part
of two decades, as if,

handed this one last task,
you have resolved 

to do it exhaustively . . .

That word “better” might carry a little more weight than it usually does here, especially if we register that that is probably almost the entire length of Holland-Batt’s writing career, making her father’s decline and death more than a solitary traumatic event. In a very practical sense, understanding her father’s life is also understanding her own.

“In My Father’s Country” maps both external and internal landscapes and it has, at its heart, a kind of progression through time as well as landscape, beginning with his boyhood and ending with his death. The poems of the first section of The Jaguar, though they too are organised chronologically, don’t seem to be about the progression of the illness. I read them almost as a set of variations, responses to the question of how one can deal with these events poetically. The first one, as its title, “My Father as a Giant Koi”, suggests, looks to the power of metaphor. But the poem’s central metaphor, instead of being a simple comparison to convey something of the man’s state, is allowed to develop a life of its own, pulling the poem away from the hospital bed towards the world of the koi. It’s not an unusual technique in poetry but here it is strengthened by Holland-Batt’s ability to make the metaphoric world as densely registered as the world of the hospital. The first few lines will show what I mean:

My father is at the bottom of a pond
perfecting the art of the circle.
He is guiding the mottled zeppelin 
of his body in a single unceasing turn
like a monorail running on greased steel,
like an ice skater swerving on a blade.
His scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon.
His tail, a luxurious Japanese fan.
He is so far beneath the green skin of duckweed
he cannot make me out, or I him. . .

One shudders to think what Newton, who described poetry as “ingenious nonsense”, would have made of this, but creatively it is very compelling. The intense poetic language is reserved not for the father but for the metaphor of the fish – “his scales are lava and ember dappled with carbon” – even to the point of deploying metaphors – the ice skater, the zeppelin, the Japanese fan – which at one farther remove illuminate the central metaphor of the fish. And, of course, one doesn’t have to be a sharp hermeneuticist to see that there are multiple other ways of reading this poem. The following of the metaphor of the fish, for example, might be designed to deflect the poet from facing up to the reality of describing the symptoms of her father’s mental and physical decline openly. If deliberate, this could be read as an additional expressionist layer to the poem saying, “Look how bad it is that I take refuge in a spiralling of metaphors”. If it is unconscious, it might be that the tension between the situation and the baroque metaphors give a structure to the poem that the poet recognises as “working” and producing a satisfactory whole.

Something similar occurs in “The Kindest Thing”, another poem from this first group. It deals with a specialist’s advice to withhold antibiotics so that her father will die from pneumonia which he calls “the old man’s friend”. This, and the handsomeness of the doctor provokes a double metaphor: python and mantis:

                  he is almost shining 
with charisma and vitality, this man who coaxes
patients towards death like an emerald boa
stretching its pink jaw  by inches
until the glass frog is entirely inside the snake’s head,
subsumed into the hypnotic knot of its body,
its scales flexing electric green as new leaves,
its white lightning bolts rippling and contracting -
or like the sinister musk blossoming
of an orchid mantis – limbs variegated
like borlotti beans in a flecked rose and cream -
swaying like a silken flower to lure
the dreaming crickets in . . .

There is a lot that is provoking this more than extended metaphor. The poet finds herself attracted to the handsome doctor of death and the extended metaphor might be read as partly a kind of personal distraction from one’s own self-disgust. And in a way the poem enacts this because the imaginative language of the metaphors is as seductive as the operations of the boa and matis themselves: it’s hard not to think of this poem as “the one with the rose and cream borlotti beans”. At the same time, as the poem goes on to explore, this isn’t a matter of relinquishing oneself to death but of relinquishing someone else – “I am offering over my father, tenderly / unhinging death’s jaws”.

The second section of The Jaguar begins with a poem of place and leads readers to expect that having dealt with the father’s illness, this might be a group of poems about place, travels and cultures: like the third section of The Hazards. But this section, too, seems, like the last, to be dragged towards the subject of the father. The second poem, although seemingly, by its title, about Pikes Peak, a mountain in Rockies, is really about the onset of her father’s illness, a mild stroke experienced while hiking there. The next poem, “Substantia Nigra”, looks at an X-ray or MRI of her father’s brain but it too is, in a sense, a poem about a place: here the centre of a human brain. There are other poems about the father’s travels and planned travels and they continue the sense of the father’s decline as a kind of black hole warping the spacetime of the poetry, forcing itself on to them so that what should have been poems about place and culture are distorted.

The only section which initially seems free of this distortion is the third where Holland-Batt deals with the other distressing aspects of emotional life, especially the failure of relationships. Even here, though, the father makes an appearance – or non-appearance, “Miles away / my father is disappearing” – in the poem “Alaska” where summer in New York and a partner’s story of how his friend’s father took his own life leads the poem to shift to the suicidal spawning run of salmon in the icy rivers of Alaska:

. . . . . 
I turn to you to say I blame them, these fathers
who do not wait to see us grow up
or what we make of their tyrannical love
but you’re silent, already sleeping,
and morning is coming on again, another morning. 

No need to point out the homophonic pun of the repeated word of the final line.

In this third section, although there is less of the intense verbal registration and the extended involved metaphors of other poems in the book, there is still a baroque, over-the-top quality about many of the poems. They aren’t, in other words, stony evocations of personal misery: the poetry is driven by a kind of hyperbolic exuberance. “Instructions for a Lover” is a good example of this playful baroque:

Bring me lemons and mint, a pitcher’s fishbowl
loaded with ice and slices of cucumber,

a Tom Collins in a tumbler, the fizz of it.
Give me sulphur summer heat, tarry sidewalks,

a tired hydrant geysering over the street,
a plane ticket to the Virgin Islands or Madrid . . .

One’s tempted to say that this might be what is asked of a poem rather than a lover but even this playful expansion of desires is constrained by a sharp finish: “and above all, take note of all the things I say – / pull me closer, push me away”. Another poem, “Ode to Cartier” has no such return to practicalities in its conclusion. A celebration of bling – “I want to be decked and set – / smoke rolling from my porte-cigarette, // plush as a leopard’s pelt . . .” – its finish – “let me die in peace // with the silk of a jaguar’s breath / huffing in my ear at dawn” – arrives at the animal of the book’s title, an animal that has gone through various modifications, including appearing as a car (a Jaguar XJ) which the poet’s father buys on impulse as is mind begins to become erratic. “Affidavit” is, like both these poems, a baroque extravagance of desire:

Fly me on a Lear jet to Antibes
          and lay me in state on a sunflower chaise.
Read me the rich list. I want to be chased
          with coconut oil and redacted
behind Jackie O shades . . .

We can also see the attraction to extended developments of hyperbolic metaphor in these poems, the kind of thing I looked at in “My Father as a Giant Koi”. “Parable of the Clubhouse” begins with a metaphor used at the end of a relationship – “When it ended, he said I had never let him in” – and opens this out in the most extended way possible:

. . . . . 
as if I were a country club with a strict dress code
and he’d been waiting outside all those years
without his dinner jacket, staring in
at the gleaming plates of lobster thermidor,
score of waiters in forest green blazers,
and the stout square shoulders of other men
who alternated tweed and seersucker over the seasons . . .

and so on. It brings me back to the issue of metaphor in Holland-Batt’s work, metaphor as something subject to the same intensifying and development as other features. In one of the poems, “On Tiepolo’s Cleopatra” – undoubtedly written with John Forbes’ great poem in mind – she imagines the reclining Cleopatra looking with contempt on the world Mark Antony brings with him:

. . . . . 
this is your idea of wealth, is this all it takes
to woo you, poor rubes, there is a land beyond metaphor
there are luxuries beyond empire’s comprehension – 
and to prove the point, I’ll swallow a pearl.

The notion of a “land beyond metaphor”, conceived as something a little more than saying that riches are a metaphor for true wealth, is an intriguing one from a poet whose use of metaphor is so complex and seemingly driven.

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.