Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

The Heart’s Calamitous Rocks

Crosshatched – Kate Llewellyn
Angus and Robertson, 1994.
ISBN 0 207 18429 1, 110 pp. pb., $14.95

This is a book of love poems. Robust poems that speak plainly and with the intensity of bright colour. Kate Llewellyn’s latest book is a celebration of love and the senses. Always it comes back to love, optimism, survival, struggle, women and men together; ‘leaning on each other’.

Men and women leaning on each other? It seems a strangely old fashioned idea in some ways – and these are the oldest questions being asked in this book; how can we reconcile love and death, faith and faithlesness?, how do we deal with the idea of the future and the past? But it is not an old fashioned voice and the questions still matter. Llewellyn speaks with a directness and an immediacy that is at best forceful and immediate and casts a fresh new light on her own answers.

For Llewellyn love is intensely physical, ‘memories / shivering on our skin’. Perhaps this explains the intense celebration of ‘now’ that these poems continually demonstrate. These are poems that relish the moment, where, despite the knowledge of death and loss, life and love and hope and desire just can’t help bubbling to the surface. Even in the morgue,

corpses are stirring,
Death’s dignity slips away,
life’s rapture and its terror
are returning,
desire and warmth flood back.

It is the knowledge, ‘Here I lie soon to die’, or the shuddering question, who will die next?, the fear of the future, that makes the present so important and so vital in these poems. And while the persona is sometimes afraid or regretful or in mourning, the present and the living moment continually force themselves back into contention.

The fact of death also brings these poems to the past. The second section of the book depicts some of history’s most famous women as most triumphant in their moment of defeat: Cleopatra, Pilate’s wife, Joan of Arc and others are examined in poems that long for that intimacy with the past that is so elusive, so desired and so impossible to achieve. It is an impossibility recognised in, ‘Queensland Holiday’, a variation of the ‘famous people’ dinner party where Anton Chekhov, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Joan of Arc are gathered together for a holiday by the Queensland surf and the persona finds her hopes dashed, ‘I’d hoped for conversation / but they’re only interested in each other … / how could I have thought otherwise.’ Despite the all too tenable a thesis that history is ‘lies’ and ‘men’s gossip’, I found these poems worked less successfully than those that grappled with a more personal past, of the poet’s childhood, or those that began with the small belongings or minutia that the past throws up, scraps of the past in all their vulnerability and their lost meanings: a chair, a bedroom at Varroville, or an old pair of shoes:

Empty, black and large,
significant and serious
like a hole dug
for the great tree of his body.

After the attention paid to the past I found some of the more ‘contemporary’ poems, particularly of the recent bushfires in the Blue Mountains, lacked some necessary distance, and while they read like they were written in the thick of it, like notes from a hurried journal entry scribbled down with the smell of smoke in the distance, they don’t perhaps read so successfully in cool retrospect:

Don’t you watch the news?
The State’s on fire,
the highway’s cut every second day.
We’re sitting here
writing wills and lists
and memoirs that might be our last.

That passage is typical of Llewellyn’s directness and phrasing in this volume, where many of the poems are more narrative than lyrical. However, she often moves beyond this kind of ‘talk’ into finely described moments and moving images These are poems of colour and the visual and the seasons and nature, poems of the landscape of love, islands lying within the sea, ‘as a man lies with a woman’, or the lavish orchards and ‘noble desert’ of loss in the powerful poem, ‘Grief’. The visual images are often simple and compelling, ‘apples on the grass, / as if the sky dropped its red skirt / at the sky’s suggestion’, or:

Yesterday
I dragged the ladder out
and climbed the tree,
its branches circled my waist
as if we were about to dance.

However, despite the success of such moments, I was disappointed at where many of these poems actually got to. I suppose if you confront the most difficult questions you are making it tough on yourself, but too often here the poems fall back from the visual moment of their impetus into a vague or mundane conclusion like, ‘As long as there is the sea / there will always be weather’ or ‘As long as the earth and sea and sky / exist / lovers will go walking’. Others, in the narrative mode, are burdened with the improbable, ‘Letters from a Goose’, or the obvious, as in Joan of Arc’s ‘I’d taken, you see, to men’s clothing / and gone off to save a nation’ or Dido’s closing remarks, ‘If you’re in touch with Cleopatra, / please ask her to get in touch.’

At her best though, in poems like ‘Grief’ or the title poem, ‘Crosshatched’, Llewellyn writes poems that are accessible and readable and funny and observant. They are poems that want to be read aloud, that reach out positively and rejoice in the moment: the feel of the sun on your back on a winter afternoon, the sight of apple blossom, the presence of the sea or a lover, or eating an apple, simple, sensual moments that are relished, not despite the awareness of loss and death, but precisely because of that awareness (make sense?)

Someone’s heart had faltered
or a baby floated
face down.
And in the midst of this,
the siren fading like a heart,
I stood there rejoicing.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

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Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm

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