Friday, October 22, 2010

a lodge of leaves

Enter a spirit. It is M. You have a lot of books, he says. Avaunt! Exits. I'm boxing books again. All of my Australian authors are coming with me because I'm afraid I won't be able to replace them in the US. The Americans have heard of David Malouf, so I'm not afraid of losing him, but Elizabeth Jolley seems to be an unknown quantity, in spite of the quote from the Washington Post that sometimes appears on her book jackets ("Elizabeth Jolley joins the handful of Australian writers of whom it may be said that their books are able to alter the direction of one's inner life" -- Elizabeth Ward, Washington Post), and so I will hold on to her -- and to the Selected Poems of Gwen Harwood as well, and the Selected Poems of J.S. Harry. Harry writes in bursts or hiccups, with dashes and extra spaces in the middles of lines -- or just short lines --

The butcher's dreams
of sleep 're transposed
onto the carcass of a sheep.
Half-asleep on his feet
he says he often dreams
he is the sheep - but alive -
and somebody else
is doing the cutting

(from Behind the Slice)

-- and often the poem ends in a pair of steps, one line, two lines, "and somebody else / is doing the cutting," with other lines wriggling around above it, fiddling a little ("he is the sheep - but alive -") as they search for the place they want to go, and then in two swift plunges they get there. In losing a lover / finding a place to keep seagoats the two lines are "it is months / since you started walking;" in the wanderer it's "so comes rain / to a lodge of leaves," and sometimes it's one line instead of two, which completes the poem with a stronger thud -- "This poem ends by a pile of cooling scrap" (Report, From The Outlands, Mating Habits There Being In A State Of Flux).

In other poems none of this applies, but there is usually a sense of wandering and then deciding in her work, and also a strangeness, verging on Nonsense --

1) Into the valley of death last night
six hundred/ butterflies/ our belov'd
field specimens/ they were carrying
duskyfoot woodrats

(from The Non-Naturalistic Weapon There should be gaps between "specimens/" and "they" and before "(loaded)" but I'm not sure how to insert them.)

If I try to imagine her sentences taken out of the poems I can see that they're usually clear and decisive, but the spaces, dashes, and other punctuation (more prevalent than they must seem from the examples I've quoted here) turn them into tentative bees, not sure where they should set themselves down. Instead they dart out in stabs. Harwood's poems are tighter, slower, more elegant, unhurried (next to Harry's skidding surface breathlessness), and they tend to take place in definite pieces of scenery. Often there will be a person, and this person will be carrying out an activity in a landscape. The landscape will be established quite firmly.

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move

(from Dust to Dust)

or from Home of Mercy

By two and two the convent girls are walking
at the neat margin of the convent grass
into the chapel

or from A Postcard

Snow crusts the boughs' austere entanglement

Once she has settled the reader's feet on the ground she goes on to describe a change, or a revelation, or an embitterment. The solid beginning takes on the role of a stepping stone. There is the very beautiful and dense Sea Anemones, with its two colours, first grey

Grey mountains, sea and sky. Even the misty
Seawind is grey. I walk on lichened rock
In a kind of late assessment, call it peace.

then red.

Then the anemones, scarlet, gouts of blood.

and with that, the poet goes from one plain word for everything around her, "grey," to no language at all, nothing adequate -- she is burst open --

There is a word I need, and earth was speaking.
I cannot hear.

Then she is earthed again, she regains her body, and there is a sort of seeking through resistant elements, cold and hardness.

Kneeling on rock, I touch them through cold water

Or an act of penitence. The peace is undone, there is no more lichen attached flat to rocks, but the anemones remind her of a baby's lips, and, "I woke once, with my palm across your mouth" and within a few lines the poet seems to have come to the conclusion that the peace of line three was not a desirable peace, but a closing-down of memory, and that the full life is a stimulated life: "Anemos, wind. The spirit where it will." The anemones appear to be inanimate but they are not. They are engaged in a struggle. "Not flowers, no, animals that must eat or die." She is condemned to this too, apparently, she either struggles, and sees, and has these memories about babies' lips and palms and spirit, or else she goes into the peace, and suffers a kind of death. Blood throughout the poem. Harwood is a romantic, often rueful, with the kind of alertness that seems always ready to come out in comedy.

Quite often in some trendy quarter
the passion to redecorate
those areas concerned with water
results in an expanse of slate.
Cork tiling's warmer, vinyl's neater.
Slate's forty dollars a square metre.
In kitchen, laundry, loo, I see
The stuff the state school gave us free

(from Class of 1927)

Born and raised in Queensland, she moved to Tasmania after her marriage. The grey sky and beach in Sea Anemones are probably chilly Tasmanian.


  1. Well, DKS, I've never heard of JS Harry but that poem "into the valley of death stomped the 600" made me laugh. How different those two are. Have you read any of Jolley's poems? Not that she wrote much as far as I know, but I do like her Neighbour woman on the fencing wire (or somesuch) which I think I mentioned in my blog in the early days. It's more like a prose poem really. So Jolley. I am glad you are taking her with you!

  2. You mentioned her poetry once on your blog but I still haven't been able to find any of it. I tried searching for the neighbour poem and found nothing but online records of manuscripts held in libraries and institutions -- "Postcard. "Christmas Conversation on the Fencing Wire." Australian Literary Management" -- and a four-page article she wrote for the New York Times in 1987. I'll keep looking.

  3. Do ... I have that one in two books - an Australian women's poetry anthology, and her Diary of a weekend farmer.

  4. I'll see if I can fit in a final secondhand bookshop run before we leave. Speaking of: I was looking through a secondhand shop on Monday and I came across a second edition Five Acre Virgin from Fremantle Press, dated 1977, before Elizabeth Jolley was Elizabeth Jolley. She was only "a promising writer whose work has appeared in anthologies and magazines" -- or somesuch thing; they had a description on the back. All in white, with cheap-looking print and cheap-looking paper and a cheap-looking cover.

  5. I imagine you know about Abebooks? Usually, if all else fails, you can find what you want there, although there isn't the pleasure of hunting through old book shops

  6. A couple of the abebooks sellers have copies of Weekend Farmer, but the shipping costs are pretty bad, and as I look at them I think, "You know, for less than that I can buy an all-day train ticket and hit the bookshops instead."