Emma Lew: Crow College: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2019, 122pp.

Reading Emma Lew’s first book, The Wild Reply, in 1997 I was tempted to guess that the generative method of its powerful poems was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been. Spending some time with Lew’s poetry while looking at this new and selected poems makes me realise how inadequate this guess was (though it has retained its attraction, to me at least, as an interesting way of generating a certain kind of poem).

For a start, not all of Lew’s poems are in the fragmentary, highly atmospheric narrative mode that we think of as being typical of her work – the kind of poem where, as Ivor Indyk says, it’s like entering a cinema after the movie has started. Take two poems whose position in the books in which they appear alerts readers as to their significance. The first is the title poem of The Wild Reply

I must not touch fire
Myth fire, adder’s fire
Sensual and deaf
The deep, swift fire

Why do I dream?
Flame speaks and sings
The great barn burns
Mirage creeps in

I need proofs, not flame
The false weight of flame
I mean by this fire
King, give me fire

The smelting and the forging
I have flame and lack nothing
Beast in my footsteps
Light up, burn

The seed and the spark
The first flame of love
There is no fire
But the poems are beautiful

This could, by a stretch, follow the model I have outlined, based on a beauty and the beast story, something like Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Esmeralda as the speaker. But it could also be read, more conventionally, as a lyric poem about the act of writing poetry, using inspiration – the fire – as a tool in the “smelting and forging” rather than something that needs to be transmitted itself. Of course, a reader always needs to guard against the tendency to interpret what may be designed to be something surrealistically resistant to interpretation as being an allegory about poetry itself, but the reading possibilities are certainly there. It might, conceivably, be a poem about love rather than poetry, whereby the “poems” of the final line are metaphors rather than actual results. In either case, what are we to make of the distinction, which the poem emphasises, between fire and flame? And there are other issues: who or what is the King and what has a burning barn to do with anything – unless something like Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” is one of the generative narratives. (Incidentally, the last poem of Crow College, “Lesson”, which recounts a woman joining in the spirit of revolutionary denunciations at the village level, speaks of a fire which “burned down the barn containing felt boots and galoshes” so there may, just conceivably, be a single narrative behind both poems.)

If “The Wild Reply” might be built on another model than the one I initially suggested, the final poem of Lew’s second book, Anything the Landlord Touches, certainly is. Significantly titled, “Poem” it is short and to the point:

Decaying thunder,
all the ordinary rain.
A raft of tiny fools,
a poem of nails.

There aren’t many clues as to how we should orient ourselves with this poem but we can say that it is a poem that expects us to interpret it in some sensible way: it clearly isn’t a piece designed to frustrate our instinctive interpretive attitude. And, the last poem in the book, it finishes with a line containing the word, “poem” – a word which, together with “poetry” and “poet”, is, I think, otherwise unknown in The Wild Reply and Anything the Landlord Touches. My “Poetry 101” reading of it would stress the difference between its two sentences. In a landscape of misty vagueness (a setting that appears in a number of Lew’s poems, including the opening poem of Anything the Landlord Touches and which thus suggests a deliberate bracketing) we meet a raft of tiny fools and a poem of nails. I’m not sure about the raft – it could be an image of the book itself with its freight of poems – but a poem of nails suggests an image for a successful poem as being something which is precise, powerful and prickly – not a bad description of Lew’s best poems. Or it could be that the raft of tiny fools is the readership of poetry (or of Lew’s poetry) and the poems contain the nails with which it is held together and with which it could be repaired.

These two poems, together with others such as “Nettle Song”, a question-answer poem interestingly involving fire, “The Recidivist” and “New Born” (from the “new” poems included in the book), should be enough to establish that there is more than one mode of Lew’s poetry. In fact The Wild Reply has a group of ten poems beginning with “Remnant of Sunset” which are perhaps earlier work and are not included in this selection but which might well be described as surreal lyrics. But the fact remains that highly atmospheric, fragmented narratives often with an Eastern European setting and suggesting a background of revolution, war and massacre bulk large in Crow College. The key word, as Bella Li notes in her introduction, is “atmosphere” and since part of what makes the atmosphere so sinister is what is omitted it seems likely that the reader’s experience of puzzlement in the face of the poem subtly adds to the sense of confusion. Some poems are less puzzling than others. “Red”, with its epigraph “Find some truly hard people” from Lenin, is a portrait of pre-revolutionary activism:

. . . . .
                        We were the hired
and the depraved, thin and dark and unjust,
prepared to burst in that ray of light when it came,
hearing nothing and scribbling until the stupid lamp
began to smoke . . .

And “The True Dark Town” is a disturbing picture of what must be one of the most troubling human experiences – that of arriving at a massacre site, seeing only the results. It’s a brilliant poem, worth quoting in full:

The snows were melting but I wanted to speak.
Swollen and undressed, filling the roads.
The mountains, so beautiful. We were afraid.
     Death buttoned my coat.

I smelled their odour when they came
down the incoherent paths of the mountain.
The petals of the flower were hushed.
     It’s the blood from that night.

A child has sheltered her books with her body.
A man was seen hoarding. Who can be sure?
This is the only thing I have rescued.
     It’s pitiful.

When the rain came, when they opened fire.
Such trifles as the noise of stars.
I had no idea the dead were so heavy.
     It’s autumn now.

The past will be a bitter land.
I do not trust the face of my father.
The wind, they say, is going to blow till the end.
     The fleas are hungry.

“The True Dark Town” is a good starting point from which to raise the next question about Lew’s poetry. At some point all serious readers try to move beyond individual poems and to make some generalisations about wider issues in an particular poet’s work. When the poems are successful, powerful entities they rather resist this and a reader has to widen his or her focus. But a wider focus often produces a vague and shifting image that is a bit of an insult to the finishedness of individual poems. In the case of lyric poets, writing out of a sense of the self that is more or less complex depending on their abilities, it’s not so difficult a task to look at shared and related themes. But in the case of these fragmented narratives it is extremely difficult and even as dedicated an admirer of Lew’s poetry as I am is likely to feel that her work is much farther beyond the grasp of my understanding than most. But “The True Dark Town” is a place for essaying a few, tentative attempts at old-fashioned thematic analysis.

To begin with the first line with its powerful non-sequitur, “The snows were melting but I wanted to speak”. Speech, silence and aphasia are issues that recur. The very first poem of The Wild Reply is “Of Quite Another Order”. I have always liked it but I suspect that may be because I can recognise its origins – it tells the story of Victor the “wild child” of Aveyron and is spoken by Jean Itard a post-revolutionary French physician who looked after and experimented with trying to educate Victor when he had been taken from the forest. My generation will know of these events from Truffaut’s 1970 film, L’Enfant Sauvage. Lew’s poem focusses on the contrast between absolute uncivilisedness (the sort of thing that is often represented by an experience of “the barbarians”) and the methodical operations of enlightenment science. As the poem says, “He was already the least curable, most diminished of people. / Civilisation increased his moments of sadness”). The tension is coded in each stanza where a description of the boy’s behaviour is concluded by the line, “Let them be collected. Let them be classed with method”. And, of course, there is the powerful sense of Itard’s endless speech being contrasted with Victor’s virtual silence. When he does speak it is with a fracturing of lexical conventions – “He used the word berg (mountain) to describe all things that are tall”. Again, with some structural bracketing, the subject of the “wild child” is revisited in “Pali” the second-last poem (before, that is, “Poem”) of Anything the Landlord Touches. This is a pantoum, a form which rather suits Lew’s style because it involves single statements and repetition and conveys meaning in a way quite different to conventional linear discourse. Why it is called “Pali” I’m not sure unless it is to suggest a language not understood but full of meaningful and important texts. It’s perhaps significant that the word “wild”, important to both these poems, is present in the title, “The Wild Reply”, suggesting answers from somewhere rather than logic.

Secondly, the bodies of the massacred in “The True Dark Town” come “down the incoherent paths of the mountain”. In other words they are described as though they were active visitants, and visitations of the dead seems to be another issue that the poems engage with. These can occur in dreams or, as in “Procedure”, in seances. This poem, placed first in Crow College, is a string of pieces of advice to a woman – “Always turn to the usurer. / Start out and remain a villainess / In the season of fake blossoms keep cool like the Minotaur . . .” – and it’s tempting to read it as a poem-poem since it’s final advice on how to run a séance – “Keep the situation dark, let the tinsel linger – / that’s how you’ll create a universe” – seems a perfect description of how Lew’s poems work: by ellipses and expansions. But, as before, that might be no more than a reflection of the fact that, faced with material resistant to simple paraphrase, it’s always tempting to feel that its hidden subject is poetry itself. At any rate, the dead, in dreams, seances or surreal narrations are a common feature of the Lew universe and nowhere more apparent than in “Jasmine”:

Breaking off a thread newly woven,
she falls silent. Her fear: that the dead
will jump up to settle accounts.
Little showers? Hail? She understands
this completely. So many thieves
wandering in the house. “The black wind.
Do you hear?” ask the ghosts . . .

“Multiple Kronstadts” is another poem (like “Red”) about historical revolutionary activity framed as a description of the possible arrival of the destructive, liberating figure:

. . . . .
I don’t mind your being a somnambulist,
bumping your head on all the hard walls
in the new shoes of the flat-footed
like the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted.

I’m interested in the footprints you leave
in the mud Russians call “roadlessness”;
or are you coming by curtained car,
or by steamboat when the rivers are ice-free?

The more you shout about your strong nerves,
the more I want to fly in your air,
watching and not having to learn
the method of your wrecking hand.

Not a ghost, perhaps, but possibly appearing like one of the hanged, gassed and electrocuted, and certainly a maker of ghosts.

These recurring themes, are no more than a brief comfort to someone trying to read these poems as a body of work rather than as a collection of self-contained pieces. Identifying some of them is certainly reassuring for a reader because they act like little flashes of familiarity. Of course, there are more significant generalisations to search for – ethical and aesthetic ones, for example, but these poems are very resistant to simple statements about issues like these. I think someone has said, somewhere, that Lew must be the Australian poet that we know least about from her poems. Does this mean that occluding is one of the functions of these poems? I don’t know but whatever a reader’s frustrations these are, almost without exception, potent and disturbing poems. One’s major regret, perhaps, is that there aren’t more.