Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Acts of Faith

One Day She Catches Fire – Kristin Henry
Penguin Books, 1992.
(ISBN 0 14 058691 1 pb., $14.95

Standing with Friends – Peter Kocan
William Heinemann , 1992
(ISBN 0 85561 491 9 pb. $-)

These two new books, from publishers making something of a fresh assault on the Australian poetry scene, are quietly and modestly positive, despite their misgivings about the world they observe.

In her personal sounding poems Kristin Henry creates and nurtures intimacies against the realities of loss and parting. She celebrates the ‘ordinary’: time spent together looking at the sea, dreams, friends, lovers, children. She details subtle episodes in relationships and treasures them in poems that are always painfully aware of the fragility of such moments. There is a warmth and tenderness to much of the collection:

When my child says ‘lonely’
two particles
appear out of a vacuum
somewhere in black space
and promptly disappear.

Such poems of love and family are never simply sentimental. They are aware always of the other side of such connections; of death and parting: a child’s first awareness that her mother will one day die, cleaning out a friend’s house after her death:

I faltered when the light
went on inside the fridge.
So much defiance –
two fragile eggs insisting on tomorrow.

This is an autobiographical sounding selection and never more so than in the poems that seek to describe the author’s own history and background, growing up in Tennessee. In ‘The Understanding that Passes All Peace’ a potted life story begins:

Small, curled with my brother on the back seat. Dad’s
Packard reaches across the starry-dark Texas desert all
through the night. The radio picks up marimba music
from a station over the border. The occasional soft-
laughing of my parents. Those were peaceful nights. But
I was young and grew into contradictions.

Such an opening is typical. The poems are free-flowing and talkative, immediate and direct. Henry has a fine eye for domestic detail, is aware of what people wear and how they talk. Often the voice sets the poet apart as a kind of anti-fashion observer, ‘dressed only for poems.’ She sees herself as somehow different, not returning the invitation to the school reunion, mocking, but also relishing, her lack of social shrewdness or business acumen; ‘I sigh across my desk. / A woman made for love, not logarithms’. At the same time as proclaiming her separateness, many poems here also yearn for contact and closeness. The best poems in this book treasure intimacy in modest celebrations of safe and tender moments, almost afraid to state their happiness lest it be taken away:

There is nowhere else I want to be.
And so for the moment, for this night, for once, I am
content to stay where I am. This is peace. But it is
fragile, fleeting. Already, by the morning, I’m regret-
ting the too many cigarettes. Peace is not lasting. I
wonder if there can ever be more than this.

Henry avoids ambitious solutions, values closeness and intimacy. She speaks of friendships celebrated in small, private moments or of observing it all from a distance, or both as in ‘The Sea from a Safe Distance’ where two old friends sit huddled together in blankets, silently watching the sea. She is least effective when she tries to make fables or myths out of such moments, and there is a certain looseness in the rhythms and some strange line divisions at times. However, at its best this collection creates a self-contained world of significances and relationships; the connections that bind them and why they matter.

Peter Kocan’s book, ‘Standing with Friends’, while more wide-ranging in subject than Henry’s, nevertheless adopts a remarkably consistent approach. Here are poems on Philip Larkin, Johnson’s ‘Dr. Levet’, the Kelly gang, travelling through England and Europe, love, and a recurring interest in the Edwardian world all linked by a consistent pattern, viewpoint and philosophy.

Kocan is haunted in this book by the sadness, disorder and violence of our times; ‘the vast unkindness of the world’. The back cover blurb promises us an unfashionable viewpoint but Kocan’s disenchantment with this ‘deluded century’ is likely to be widely echoed. His comment, prompted by a recent murder for example is typical of much media response to violence:

But we’ve no longer rules to reckon by
the moral order’s like a crazy quilt
We scourge the evil-doers, yet deny
Than anything is anybody’s fault.

What is perhaps more unfashionable these days are Kocan’s tentative conclusions: that suffering is part of life, ‘So glancing back at history we learn / Courage was ever mingled with despair’ and that there must be some meaning or maker beyond it all to give it purpose;

‘ – The sense that an Admiral far away,
Who has the whole equation in his head
Knows the ship is where it ought to be’.

Through the collection Kocan struggles with faith and disbelief, hopefulness and despair. He often moves from the physical to the metaphysical, from the episode to the general conclusion with a strangely simple but compelling rhyme scheme. Thus, many begin with something being pointed out; ‘Here’, ‘See’ ‘In Mansfield’, move to describe the awful nature of events and then, often through an act of faith, conclude on a more positive note: ‘and yet it warms me to recall’ or ‘And all the while you understand of course’. There is in this way, and in the almost universal four line rhyming stanzas of the book, a typical Kocan poem developing here that is surprisingly flexible and effective.

Kocan’s answers to the problems of living are modest and compassionate: let’s have faith in each other, turn to the rituals and heritage of the past and the worth of the individual. As in Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, we are urged to have faith and love in each other now:

And so, my friends, let’s cling together now
Against the future that we cannot see.
Let’s love each other, for we cannot know
Who the condemned survivor is to be.

Kocan calls on simple and unfashionable virtues like ‘being brave and being kind’ while reminding us of the traditions in our lives, ‘Yet think of the uncounted thousands, too, / Whose flesh and blood and spirit got us through’ and ‘The heritage of twenty centuries / Is symbolised in rituals like these’. However, Kocan never becomes portentous or self-important in these conclusions: ‘likely enough / What we today envisage and intend / Will seem as ridiculous in the end’. Like Henry, Kocan offers us a very human and compassionate book of modest, measured responses to the unkindness of our world.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm

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