There’s lyricism aplenty in Westcombe’s work. The collection is packed with end-line firecrackers: ‘My little planet face/ Looks into every canal/ On earth’ (‘Bloemenmarkt’) or ‘If you’d had drugs you’d see it,/ Or fall to bits,/ Remembering a hundred things/ You’d lost’ (‘St Babe’) or ‘The crack and crunch and me,/ Made of breath; listening’ (‘Trans-seasonal 7pm’). But it’s a lyricism informed by Language writing, aware of the uncertainty of self and scraped clean of any extraneous adjectives, trusting the nouns (and the reader) to do the work. ‘Wanting’, a poem about loss, is filled with lyric poignancy yet manages to float high above the potential bog of sentimentality, buoyed by its unexpected simile, its semi-paratactical swerves:
Artefacts from your life have fallen, Unseeing, as shut and small as Keys. Now there is only the wish for a cigarette, for The first part of the last cold day,
Additional layers of meaning are created through dexterous handling of enjambement and jeu de mots, which allow interpretation to shimmer and shift across stanzas, taking us back to Hejinian’s words: ‘potent with ambiguity’, ‘meaning-full’, ‘unfixed’. Returning again to the final lines of ‘Demerara jar’,
Here is what I felt/ Here is where I have been
we might observe how the line breaks allow ‘Here is where’ to become a question and ‘I have been’ to stand alone as a statement. Similarly, a line break earlier in the poem
I forget What it is to know Her...
makes ‘I forget’ a general statement about the mind’s inability to hold onto every moment. The meaning then shifts in the next line to suggest the dawning realisation that one can never truly ‘know’ anything. The concluding ‘Her’ bears the accumulated weight of the previous two lines and is consequently loaded with the impossibility of having ‘known’ someone who is no longer there.
The title, ‘Demerara jar’, demonstrates Westcombe’s skilful use of jeu de mots as a means of further layering. The jar of sugar suggests sweetness, but it’s a sweetness that ‘jars’ because of absence. Other titles have similar double meaning: ‘Toll’ refers to toll gates as well as death toll, ‘Customs’ refers to airport customs and traditional patterns of behaviour, ‘Wanting’ suggests both desire and lack.
Almost inevitably there are elements of Dickinson at play here: big questions framed in small, ordinary statements, a propensity for telling it slant, experimental expression. There are echoes, too, of Forbes. ‘The pardon’, for example, with its quirky narrative and tongue-in-cheek tone, is pure Forbes. The strange personification of
On a day when all the built things breathe out To show us something airy; The end of a long, long joke
is similar to lines like ‘an obliging empty sky/ takes over the job of teaching you/ to distinguish blurred islands/ from wrecks’ in Forbes’ ‘Tropical Drinking’ or ‘… each/ planet lines up behind you, by/ way of keeping score’ in ‘Elegy for the Middle Classes’. And the end of the poem, ‘Well yes, well/ Thank you’, is reminiscent of the final lines in Forbes’ ‘Europe, endless’: ‘Thanks I said/ Thanks a lot’.iii
Though influences of schools as well as individual poets can be seen and heard in this collection, ultimately Westcombe’s poetry is all her own. Ambitious in intent, clean and precise in execution, it’s an impressive debut that embraces uncertainty with linguistic bravado, celebrating the extraordinariness of the everyday.
iii Forbes, John. Collected Poems, Brandl and Schlesinger, Melbourne, 2010, pp. 147, 91, 174.