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.

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.