Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Placements in Poetry

Placements in Poetry

Three Days Out of Tidal Town – Anthony Lawrence
Hale and Iremonger, 1992
(ISBN 0 86806 447 5, pb., 96pp. $14.95 )

Australia, My Home – Amy MacGrath
Towerhouse Publications, 1991.
(ISBN 0 9591879 5 2, pb., 142 pp. $ – )

What first struck me about these very different books is how their titles both exhibit a strong sense of positioning; in place and in public declarations of allegiance. Anthony Lawrence’s second collection, ‘Three Days Out of Tidal Town’ creates a private history of places while McGrath’s, ‘Australia, My Home’, positions the poet emotionally with a more public announcement of significances.

Lawrence avoids pronouncements. His is a book of fragments and incidents, deliberately creating a voice that refuses to conclude about the meaning of the experiences described. The opening poem, ‘Incident at Heraklion’, is a useful model for what is to come. It is a travel poem, set overseas, romanticising the persona:

Elizabeth sang me to sleep in French
in the bluestone hills above Heraklion.
I was tired and bleeding – a drink of water
at a monastery, and amoebic dysentery
lowered its hooks the length of my throat.
I was hallucinating images from the Iliad.

It is a typical opening, personal and autobiographical sounding, the voice somehow street-wise but vulnerable. There is in these poems a self-mythologising element, an almost self-important voice that never questions the public interest of these personal concerns. The fishing image is characteristic too. Like Robert Adamson, to whom Lawrence has been compared, Lawrence is drawn by fishing and its metaphors: ‘I cast no lines in anger / I release what I do not need / I work a stranded boat into poetry’. In what I think may be a first, Lawrence even includes a recipe poem for eating European carp which ends, ‘If you’re eating carp and your mouth fills with mud / and leaves, well, you haven’t read this poem.’

It is appropriate that Lawrence hallucinates ‘images’ in this first poem too for he refers throughout to the making of poetry. The poet becomes a kind of seer, ‘Above all things I will seek / counsel with living creatures / and learn from their instruction’. There is, at the same time though, something of a romanticising of the poetic self in the recurring travel / drug / experience poems that often see the persona creating a kind of alternative third world postcard poetry : ‘Outside a bedouin stall . . . I revise old poems and smoke my way / through a pack of the cheapest fags’ or ‘An hour after swallowing / a piece of Lebanese Blonde, / I stopped at a market stall / in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’.

The opening poem also contains elements of the romanticism and sensuality that Lawrence is able to bring to many poems:

Elizabeth brought me thick blue grapes
that burst under my tongue, her hands
in my hair, and French songs again.

Where does this opening poem go? Well, like many of the fragmentary incidents that follow there is an uncertainty, a ‘blurring’ in the meaning and while Lawrence’s endings are often startling and effective, ‘with a terrible absence of song’ and ‘the warning sign / swinging violently on its chains’, there is also a certain inconclusiveness about many endings as here:

We lay on the deck watching gulls
and the passing of small dark islands,
the engine pulsing, my sickness almost gone,
and overhead, like a waterstain blurred at the edges,
a map of Crete painted badly on the funnel.

Lawrence’s is a wide-ranging book, bringing in subjects from Irish hunger strikers to Jewish Holocaust survivors. The episodic subject matter of travelling creates an easy kind of narrative voice that places the persona in the world very quickly. Openings like, ‘I’m in my car at the side of the road’ or ‘When Cyclone Tina blocked the sun’ are typical of the way Lawrence places the poem in time and place.

This narrative voice is best seen in the most impressive section of the book, the long sequence ‘Blood Oath’, a poem recounting the tale of two young jackeroos who flee their crazed boss and die in the desert. The voice here is conversational and direct, yet powerful and evocative, images of birds recurring in poems that are freer in movement than those of some of his European subjects. The sequence is the highlight of the book, and owes something to Francis Webb’s explorer poetry, but is also similar in some respects to Les Murray’s long sonnet novel, ‘The Boys Who Stole the Funeral’.

MacGrath’s is a different kind of poetry altogether. As the grand titles of her poems suggest ; ‘Europe’s vision of Australia’, ‘The Giant Pacific’, ‘The Desert Explorers’, ‘Sydney’, ‘Bicentennial of Australia’s Discovery’, MacGrath is interested in the larger picture. She leaves the reader no doubts as to where she stands in a book dedicated often to explorers like Giles, Cook and Sturt, eulogised here as ‘men beyond the ordinary man’, or as she writes of Giles:

The careless schoolroom should resound your fame
the lonely gravestone boast your proper legend –
‘here lies a man who dared the fearful desert,
remember him, do homage to his fame.’

In fact, much of MacGrath’s work here is a homage to people and places and history. There is homage too, to the language and rhythms of another time: ‘O Noble Land’. The collection’s sub-headings, ‘Australia’, ‘Sydney, My City’, ‘Centennial Park’ ‘Australian Pilgrim’ and ‘The Lost Continent Found’ sum up the kind of journey we encounter. We often meet the original inhabitants of this continent but they are mostly seen through guilt, ‘I know the shame of my pillaging profit’, or dismissed as already finished: ‘We have extinguished black men who stood proud’. MacGrath’s poems are often too wide-ranging for me. I prefer her more episodic and observational work. Nevertheless, the language and structures remain somewhat inflexible.

In comparison, Lawrence’s is a much more expressive voice and and it is consolidated here in his very readable and engaging book. If the final narrative sequence, ‘Blood Oath’, hints at future directions, Lawrence will continue to develop his growing reputation. The success of this narrative poem seems to show that he needs something more substantial, something outside the self-absorbed self, to get his poetic teeth into.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm

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