Indelible Traces

To review poetry today is to be exposed to a wide variety of different works. One might go to a sommelier’s class and be treated to a line of bottles camouflaged by brown paper bags from which sip-sized samples of the same varietal are extracted, tasted and discussed, often via a vocabulary search to describe accurately the phenomenological overhang of the taste, before the swill and spit. “Almost thou makest me a philosopher!” as someone might have said to St Paul. But the wine tasters do raise questions about “word and thing” and what it is that invites the journey into a forest-like thesaurus.

Some books recently read have driven me to the guidebooks for help. I looked at three guides by James McAuley: A Primer of Australian Versification (1966), The Personal Element in Australian Poetry (1970) and A Map of Australian Verse (1975). I offer the opening sentence from A Primer: “The fundamental unit in versification is the line.” And here is helpful comment from The Personal Element:

The question is: What is the relation between poetry and personal experience; and in particular what are the ways in which a personal element enters poetry? The interest in this question has been sharpened in recent years by the turn of some contemporary poets towards an unprecedented expression of their personal experience, directly and in detail, in their poetry.

As The Personal Element ends, McAuley outlines two paths that divide at this point and help clarify “the personal”:

In one aspect it is surely a product of that unfolding realization of the unique value and significance of each individual human person, and his life-history, which characterises the Western and Christian tradition … meaning invades the psychopathological organism of man as he makes his choices minutely in his concrete situation.

McAuley also considers the descending possibility “that some of this poetry is a retreat from meaning and an abandonment of rational control … the poet can fall back upon a record of his random sensitivities: the private world … proclaims the ruin of the public one …” This latter category can then move to further extremes of its own, and McAuley disparages “self-exhibiting nits”.

This excursus into a theory of poetry from half a century ago can help us frame some comments on recent review volumes. It makes me want to attend closely to each line. Perhaps more closely than some of the poets themselves. 

Shine was printed without page numbers. This volume exemplifies McAuley’s matrix of the personal, the psychopathological organism, the highly minute in the specific circumstances of a particular life. It is clearly a focused attempt to bring deeply personal and, at times, brutal experiences within an order, and the free poetics frame this directness and intensity. Its prime claim to being poetry lies in the capacity to focus and control intense inner states that range from rage to a desire to control, to deep concern for others: warning “My themes are dark and non-conforming” and “I know the only one my demons should hurt is me”. “How to Avoid a Train Wreck”: “we cannot influence / the direction or speed of other train wrecks.” The most powerful personal element in the book lies in the poem “Don’t Tell Me to Breathe”, in which Skylar J Wynter recounts being targeted in an act of domestic violence and run down by a car and left badly injured. The poem is full of the indelible trace of embedded trauma, which the vocabulary reflects.

After pondering the works, I think that the poems best sit in the self-help and therapies section of a bookshop—if there is a surviving bookshop near you. Some will read them and find the directness and personal disclosure to be helpful, inspiring or good. Perhaps the poems could have slid across into compelling stream-of-consciousness short stories; but then it’s not for me to tell the writer how to breathe.

For I moment I was reminded of buying a volume in the late Bob Gould’s elephant graveyard of all books (a variant on Alice’s Restaurant perhaps, where one could indeed get most anything one wanted)—the one edited by Kate Jennings and aptly titled Mother I’m Rooted (1975). I leave the reader to find, read and decide. On the final page of Shine one scan a QR code for a selection of poems and to listen to Wynter read her own work. In the old days one might get a 45rpm record, or a CD, as was the case with a Les Murray volume. Wynter reads her work well and the intensity is palpable. Intensity is there too in a poem called “The Gap” where the self-intended end of a life is contemplated.

The book is illustrated throughout with a background wash, over which various human figures, mostly female, are painted. The depictions have the air of “cosmic woman” and perhaps a hint of chakras or tantric figures. A touch of earth-ecstasy perhaps.

Some of Wynter’s verse is in the “concrete” style and she has experimented with layout—for instance, printing the word EXPLOITATION vertically and then using each letter as the starting letter for a word; the twelve one-word lines elaborating on “exploitation”.

I return to where I began, with McAuley’s provision of an evaluative tool for me: “The fundamental unit in versification is the line.” Wynter’s strength lies (rather) in the direct address of deeply personal states, if not trauma. It is a different field and can of course overlap with different kinds of poetry and poetics. 

Crimson Boronia is Janet West’s latest of three volumes of poems. She was born in Sydney in 1935 and has significant publications to her credit. She has won the New South Wales Prize awarded by the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales and was also awarded Christian Book of the Year. Her play Georgiana has been shortlisted as a screenplay by Harpsichord Films and the NSW Film and Television Office.

I read the title poem (“Crimson Boronia: In Memoriam Georgiana Molloy”) with some anticipation because, growing up in Perth, I would become aware at the right season that the boronia sellers had come up from the south-west (where Molloy lived) to sell bunches of cut boronia in the streets of the CBD. The air would fill with their sweet, intense perfume. One can move out from the poem about this pioneering woman and botanical discoverer, to the wider issues of early colonial life—as one chooses.

Some of these wider issues can become part of an energetic debate that provokes first-order reflection on poetics in Australia, and some of it has become highly politicised around the issue of first encounters and continuing memory with those who lived in the land before British settlement. To go down that path here would be to move away from West’s poetry into a parallel argument or even politics of poetry. That can be OK. Shelley was a highly politicised poet for all his lyrical structures and poetry of beauty. It is not my aim or intent here. But.

West’s poems begin with a delicate tribute to a woman who arrived when the Swan River Colony was in its infancy as a British experiment and foundation. It celebrates her short life, and the poem is carried by the parallel between the brevity of life and the flowering season. That is of course as old as the Psalms, which Georgiana would have known, and “all flesh is grass” is the motif. The poem breathes the Christian hope that hope is not confined to this life alone: “Till next year comes / And you return at last”. Both Georgiana and the boronia are caught in “spirit of the bush”. The poem also contrasts the then familiarity of European flora far away, and the strangely new flora of this place: “No primrose, violets or narcissus here”.

Western Australia is one of many places celebrated in the book. Poems take us to Crete, Olimbos, by the Libyan Sea, Tuscany, Tallinn (Estonia), and there are tribute poems to distinctive individuals: a headmistress, a photographer, musicians, and to much-loved places like the Mitchell Library: “Marble her halls and lucent her glass”. West’s poems keep a thoughtful record and honour their subject.

The volume ends with “Landing at Heathrow”, perhaps always a compass point north for English-speaking peoples—where presumably poetics and publishing have their own matrix and centre and are not simply subject to endless excoriation. (Here I must commend a book, in excess of 700 pages, and that is Mark Ford’s London: A History in Verse.)

West opens and closes “Landing at Heathrow” with “Sweet Thames run softly, / … Run softly, / Til we end our song.” The lines derive from Edmund Spenser and his “Prothalamion” (or wedding song) where each stanza ends: “Against the bridal day, which is not long: / Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.”

Eliot used these lines to other effect. In The Waste Land, he undercuts Spenser with modern and darker realities (and echoes Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”): “run softly, for I speak not loud or long. / But at my back in a cold blast I hear / The rattle of the bones, and chuckle / spread from ear to ear.”

West’s concluding poem catches her opening poem. Georgiana Molloy died young, in her thirties. The bridal day was “not long”. West changes the voice from “Til I end my song” to “Till we end our song”. The poet has someone in mind.

by Skylar J Wynter, artwork by Neshka Turner

Dragonfly Publishing, 2022, 110 pages, $72 (from publisher, inclusive of postage)

Crimson Boronia: An Anthology of Poems
by Janet West

Salt and Light Publishing, 2016, 39 pages

Ivan Head’s omnibus poetry reviews appear frequently in Quadrant, most recently in the June issue. Some of his own poetry also appears in this issue

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