Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Looking Inward and Outward

Surviving the Shadow – Terry Gillmore
Paper Bark Press, 1990
(ISBN 0 9587801 45, pb, 100 pp. $ – )

Red Dirt – Tim Thorne
Paper Bark Press, 1990
(ISBN 0 9587801 53, pb., 95 pp. $ – )

It’s good to see Paper Bark Press expanding their already distinctive poetry list with these two new books by very different poets. Paper Bark Press books I have seen always look well designed and presented, produced with the sort of care that small publishers are able to bring to their product. These are no exception.

Terry Gillmore’s Surviving the Shadow is an introspective, occasionally uneven, book that seeks, often in poetry of the internal monologue, to come to terms with death and desire, loss and living. Always moving toward the meditative longer form, Gillmore’s powerful concerns recur throughout the collection, repeated and enhanced through their reappearance in various moments.

Central to the collection is the idea in the haunting title poem, ‘Surviving the shadow’; that the darkness of loss and grief can be survived, if not triumphed over. Many of these are poems of healing, of survival, of coming back from the brink to the world of humans again. The darkness of the shadow is mostly contained in the tragic death of the poet’s daughter; an event that, quite naturally it seems to me, shakes the poet’s belief in being human and loving, and creates a sense of bitterness at the hardness of the world. In this book we see the first reactions to loss, ‘I cry out for the dancing daughter / I left behind as her beauty builds / in the blur of memory and repression’, leading to the kind of self-protection and hardening that is necessary to avoid pain, ‘How can we learn not to attach ourselves / to the objects of our love?’, and ‘the human soul is without protection’. Such impulses lead almost to an indifference, a belief in the ‘hard-mean reality’ of the world:

Hit the caravan parks, walk the wharf,
in bad times for the tuna boats; it is November,
a cruel beginning with no catch. Later that night
a seventy-five footer breaks up, and two men drown.

Such an outward image of loss of faith is not typical of Gillmore’s work here. Most often the poetry is in the more purely personal mode, not attempting to find an objective model, but speaking directly and intensely of personal truths. These are intimate poems, of the most serious loss, of friendships lost and found, of relationships in the most personal sense of them. The books has the self-possession that only love or suffering can bring, moving inward always in a personal voice of personal things, ‘What was between us was not a refuge’, ‘We talked of love, murder and children / of the reactions of others to unlimited grief’.

But the strength of this book is that Gillmore manages to move beyond grief and bitterness into something more positive. For these are poems of the poet’s own resurrection, of the process of grieving and healing, ‘I need to return to first things’, of emerging into light again:

I could not bear the solitude of that Christmas,
and I could not reach the living.
You helped at my resurrection, helped me find the strength
to move across the line that isolated me.

The poems speak of the healing nature of time, of the difficulty, but the necessity, of ‘submitting to compassion and stillness’. There is also a sensual and erotic element to many of the poems here. The final three sections of the book, ‘Fields of Nowhere’, ‘Events of the Heart’ and ‘The Journey’ move the book from loss and hurt and healing, into passion and desire. Here we find love poems in the most modern sense, ‘holographs of lust’, and of the purifying nature of ‘grief and joy’. These are sensual poems, of ‘the golden beast of desire’ and they work with the same inward looking intensity of the earlier poems of loss and grief.

There is also some talk of poetry itself. I don’t find such poetry very satisfying, and in an inward looking book like this, these meditations of the poet on poetry tend to remove the reader from the intimacy created in other places. It is interesting to see Gillmore’s poetic aims so clearly put, ‘to achieve that directness which is more than invocation / the art of dense conversation’, but he largely succeeds in creating such an intensity of voice and doesn’t need to talk about his aims with his readers. Such moments lead to a somewhat uneven feel to the first half of the book, a lapse in his own aim for the ‘dense conversation’ that is more than made up for in the many moments of sureness and intensity in these poems of loss and recovery:

but outrage and loss were in me
while the words, ‘learn to lose, learn to lose,’
echoed in me like a grisly mantra for my life.

Tim Thorne’s is a more outward sounding voice. In Red Dirt we have a voice commenting, often critically, on society and the harsh edges of the Tasmanian landscape and its history: ‘well, genocide . . . there’s something we know about’. No Tasmanian poet could write without the constant awareness of the violent history of that island, but Thorne ranges more widely too at times; speaking about Chernobyl, politics, television, art, mythology and even graffiti in a tone that is often witty and never merely clever:

In the decorated carriage
I remember this and I remember that
the Roman Empire tried to keep ASIANS OUT

The death of language leaves from all platforms.

Even the ‘White Diamond Gloom’ section of the book, full of images of surgery and hospitals, death and suffering, is never self-pitying but full of wit and bravado: ‘You can / choose your gamble: Lit. Board or Medicare. / You’re owed a living but you don’t have to collect’. Thorne can be forgiven if the poems here do sometimes become more bleak as the persona verges on panic. However, like Gillmore, Thorne emerges somewhat healed of his ‘shadow’; if not triumphant, then alive and kicking:

But for now seize the light
in a cry, suck in enough
tomorrows to flesh limbs
for a long, kicking fight.

However, it is in the other sections, ‘Red Dirt I and II’ and ‘The Strutting Fire’ that I found the books real strength. I like especially Thorne’s poems of places; of Hobart, the Tamar Valley, Macquarie House, even the Seychelles. It is an earthy book, refreshing in its spaciousness after Gillmore’s interiors. Thorne tackles places as serious and sharp as the hospital wards of earlier poems, places where ‘grim snow / spikes the wind’ and ‘the estuary / bleeds out to sea’. They are chaotic, disconsolate landscapes and Thorne returns always to the human, ‘the bright planned columns’. These are difficult poems at times, of the body and the mind, of reality and not wishing, with a similar sense of the hardness of the world to Gillmore; ‘If you want to be shore-bird / study the art of wading.’ Both poets too are impatient with the cliches of the past and while Thorne’s poetry lacks something of the compression and intensity of Gillmore’s voice, he has an easier way of moving from the cerebral to the physical or from the idea to the image; as on the liberation of the Seychelles: ‘Where fish and foxes fly / ideals can leap into reality’. Both voices are to be welcomed.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm

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