Sarah Day: Slack Tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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