Willo Drummond: Moon Wrasse

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2023, 84pp.

This is a complex, intriguing and quite exciting first book. The central two (of its four sections) are a kind of poetic search, not for the various certainties or states that poets yearn for, but for a single poet, Denise Levertov. As a long time admirer of Levertov – surely the most likable (and one of the most rewarding) of the post-war school of American “New Poets” – I’m immediately well-disposed and it’s a disposition carried through the other poems of Moon Wrasse. Of course, it raises the question of what one wants from “pursuing” another poet. A poet wants poems, perhaps, as an intellectual wants a better and fuller understanding. But another poet always remains, ultimately, out of reach: the quest valuable but the grail unobtainable. You can feel this in poems like “On Finding and Not Finding Levertov” and “Cedar Tree” in which Drummond visits Valentines Park in Ilford, a place looming large in Levertov’s childhood. In the first of these the issue is one of maturity: the difficulty is to try to see the world through the eyes of a child, even if the child is a nascent poet experiencing the “double vision” of places both in their ordinariness and in the more vibrant life within them, a vision which is the basis of Levertov’s first book, published in England before her emigration to America. “Cedar Tree” is a poem of frustration: touching the tree doesn’t produce the frisson of connection with the poet. In a sense it’s a pilgrim’s frustration but, thinking about the tree rather than the young Denise Levertov, there is a connection of a kind Levertov would have responded to:

. . . . . 
And though I felt
more than a thousand

years of life humming
there, in which you believed,
under which you cultivated

a life of Awe,
I could not
palpate the precise

pulse of your making. For
what matters
             is not
what is
    or how
            it was

but how you saw
it . . .

Since no smart-phone camera can catch any of this, the poet is left with “a reduction, / or nothing // resembling a path / to you . . . “.

As an outsider, it’s hard to be confident about what the relationship between these three poets is. On one level it has a kind of archaeological drive whereby exploring the work of Levertov leads, at a lower level, to the work of Rilke and which might, conceivably, lead to his poetic antecedents. If not an archaeological impulse, it might be an exploration of the layerings of influence. I have always thought that Levertov’s response to Rilke was a response not so much to his poetry as to his pronouncements about the correct attitude on the part of the poet, of the correct attitude vis a vis reality. It’s no accident that, using the references in Moon Wrasse as a sample, Rilke’s prose (his letters, the Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge) figures more largely than his poetry. For Levertov it established the stance of the poet as a high and demanding calling and she carried that throughout her career. Her poetry, however, is entirely different to Rilke’s, being very much of its time and place in its sense of being “open” or “naked”. There is, for example, none of Rilke’s formalism in her work and one of her indisputable achievements is to retain the notion of a high calling but combine it with her own, less hieratic, American open-form poetry to the point where she might still be used in classes today to give readers an idea of what such open forms can achieve when exploited by a great poet. Just as Levertov’s poetry is quite unlike Rilke’s, so Drummond’s poetry is quite unlike either of these two mentors. It works much more by quotation and allusion and the resulting poems can often seem more like assemblages rather than expressions of a clear, personal lyric voice. A group of poems from the second section of Moon Wrasse take as their starting point Rilkean phrases which Levertov had used as part of an index to the poet (something that I wasn’t aware she had done). This results in a triple layering rather than a single allusion and produces poems of satisfying complexity. Again, this process of quoting and layering is one of the available styles of our times so perhaps there is a certain, pleasingly regular, initiatic chain that links a poet of the 1920s with one of the 1970s and one of the 2020s.

The first and fourth sections of Moon Wrasse are not at all about finding and not finding a precursor poet, though many of the themes are interconnected with the poems from the middle parts of the book. Here we seem in a world of liminality and transformation, of dispersal and accretion, but also one which poses questions about the nature and possibilities of lyric poetry. In the case of the former, the totemic animal is the fish of the title which (as usual, if I sound knowledgeable about this, it is courtesy of Wikipedia) is a “protogynous hermaphrodite”, that is it changes sex from female to male. This idea of gender transformation is, obviously, one very current today and various members of the animal and plant world have been pressed into service as symbols. The title poem itself, is, in contrast with the earlier poems of the book, where disappointment, depression and failure are often paramount, a near rhapsodic poem about personal experience: in other words, a lyric poem. It certainly isn’t a po-faced “capturing” of an odd, smallish fish:

. . . . . 
        you are
        forming, transforming
twinkling your webbed toes
shaking your tail
crescent. Lyre-wrasse
we cycle
through the dappled light
of the casuarina -
holding hands
like younger lovers
in a film
in a dream

All is calm and comfort
here, moving in
our translucent
“self-made” and safe
as houses -
Or as a fresh-made pair
of parrot fish

The precise personal relationship behind a poem like this is never really available to a reader, as it never is in lyric poetry. What, after all, do we know about the minutiae of Catullus’s love for his brother beyond what two poems tell us about the intensity of his love? But we know enough to appreciate the slightly comic elements and the domestic-rhapsodic tone. It also has a place to fill in the structure of the book whereby the bleaker poems of the first section are, symphonic-fashion, replaced by a more optimistic tone in the final part.

The first section, too, has a totemic being, the mangrove. It is introduced in a prefatory poem, “Seed”, which focusses on the fact that mangroves (like other animals such as humans) are viviparous: that is they produce a miniature version of themselves which they then allow to disperse. Another poem, “Propagules for Drift and Dispersal”, works on the symbolic meanings of this for the author: “When I was one such kid, I couldn’t wait to flee / this drowned river valley . . . . . Through sheer force of willpower / I’d build my own terra firma; show life was more than a sentence // -based rehearsal . . .”. But, of course, there is also the inevitable symbolic echo of the experiences of a lyric poet whereby the poems are produced and dispersed in publication, the “Go litel boke” kind of envoi that can preface (as in Catullus) or conclude a larger work.

The other poems of this first section are marked by expressions of grief and loss. Again, a reader isn’t privy to the exact details of this but “Unspoken” and “Ways of Seeing”, with their emphasis on the moon and the Egyptian way of calculating the beginning of a month by the state of the moon, suggest that the issue is pregnancy. The book’s first poem, “The Act of Making”, begins with the proposition that “There is always something to be made / of pain” and finishes by suggesting a kind of stoicism: “Parched // you shake barren dust / from boots, walk on”. And “Sail”, one of the poems that first attracted me to the book, is very much about the moment when someone collapses into depression imagined as the wind – which has previously bellied the sail and produced a flowing forward motion – suddenly dropping:

. . . . . 
Experience says, in time,
                         the canvas will snap

taut. Right now
this sheet is the shape of living.

The ladder’s blown
the world’s all wailing wind.

The final two poems of this first section both search for consolation, one in grief and the other in transformation. “Archaeology” uses the “diving into the wreck” kind of metaphor to see the grieving process as a journey through an underworld, as much like miners as archaeologists. I read the ending as bleak but optimistic, although I might have the tone wrong:

. . . . .
      so when we reach the water table
    on which our city floats
when we glimpse the rusted ladder that leads towards the light

      we know to stow our picks and grasp with two hands, the frame
   of each breaking, tenderskinned
ending, to the ink of night.

“Some Words for Migratory Birds” recalls the interest in dispersion perhaps used as a metaphor for transformation. In this poem, the personal elements – the poet’s stake in the metaphor – are not, again, entirely clear, but the transformation occurs within a couple imagined as travelling like migratory birds and the conclusion is challenging but ultimately optimistic, something rather different to the tone of the earlier poems of this first section:

. . . . . 
Thing is, the slightest shift in alkalinity
sets the whole thing in motion. We must
conserve our energy, for there’s just
so far to go. Here
                             listen to my voice:
                             the world is waiting for you
                             and you flight-notes. What
                             will you make of them?	Turn
                                                                               face northward                                                        
                                                                                                       embark –

“Archaeology” derives its metaphor of “an archaeology of grief” from Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. I know this only because the note for this poem tells me so. There are nine pages of notes for the poems of Moon Wrasse and they are a kind of topic in themselves. Many people will find this a bit extreme and recall William Carlos William’s disgust with the way in which “The Waste Land” (another poem with extensive notes) had driven poetry back to the classroom when it should be focussing on the reality that surrounded the poet. The fact that many books of poetry have their origins in a project undertaken for a higher degree adds to this schoolroom/scholarly quality. But the growth of notes in recent books is obviously generated by the conjunction of two factors. The first is that it is increasingly common for poems to begin not in ambient reality but in other poems, either by generating a new text from the old or – as in Moon Wrasse – layering existing work, together with the author’s own contribution to make texts that are sometimes assemblages and sometimes just highly allusive. When coupled with the fact that there is a drive to out writers as plagiarists, you can see why poets want to make sure that they credit every use of another’s work. I’ll quote the note to “Archaeology” in its entirety though it is one of the shorter notes to the book:

“The archaeology of grief” is from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014: 199); “forgotten ways of sight” is an allusion to a phrase from the same passage; “silver moon not yet lost / at bottom of silted well” is an allusion to a line from Denise Levertov’s “Everything that Acts Is Actual,” Here and Now (1957); “weigh” and “by… carat… of heart” are from Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke Vol II 1910-1926, (Trans. Greene & Norton 1948: 297); “blood”, “glance and gesture” are from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Trans. Norton 1949: 27).

Readers might object to such material on the grounds (which have never been entirely, logically demonstrated) that a poem should “stand on its own two feet”, but a critic is likely to be thankful that that at least part of the inner workings of a poem should be laid bare.