The Other Way Out by Bronwyn Lea
Giramondo Publishing, 2008
Young Rain by Kevin Hart
Giramondo Publishing, 2008
One of the most prominent features of these two recent titles – by two of Australia's most successful poets, published by one of the country's most exciting literary publishers – is their emphasis on the erotic. By engaging with unambiguously sexual themes and imagery, Bronwyn Lea and Kevin Hart have produced texts that beguile and entertain their reader through the evocation of, or a yearning for, romance and sensuality, whilst also running the risk of reducing allusion and openness in meaning by describing a definite, rather familiar, concept.
Although The Other Way Out is only Lea's second full-length collection, it comes highly anticipated due to its Queensland-based author having already won a number of major prizes and her having been praised by critics such as Geoffrey Lehmann who recently dubbed her, in Weekend Australian, 'the brightest light to emerge in Australian poetry since the start of this decade'. While such an assessment may seem hyperbolic, even a cursory glance at Lea's new collection displays a remarkably versatile voice, capable of articulating almost any subject or, as it happens, any object.
In the book's third section, suitably titled 'The Way Into Stone', for example, Lea identifies with and writes in the imagined voices of a number of rather curious inanimate, manmade objects. In 'The Temple Bell', she writes: 'I ring all day for those/who will listen//alert to the silence that rings'. In 'The Terracotta Warrior – Xian, c. 220 BCE', she personifies one of the famed statues in a contemporary, modernist language – notable for its precision and careful enjambments – whilst reflecting the object's ancient, haunting history:
This is the pits.
I've been biting my lip for years.
Behind me the emperor lies
beside his child
buried in his suit of jade
& pearls. They float in a sea
To state the obvious, Lea's use of lyrical devices is dexterous. The intensity of a short i assonance in the first line – in 'this', 'is' and 'pits', effecting a rapid and immediate announcement – slowly fades in the second and fourth lines as a sequence of the long pronunciation of the same vowel ('I', 'biting', 'behind', 'lies', 'beside', etc.) develops the imagery and extends the poem's field of vision across time and space. Such a near perfect marriage of sonority and content is perhaps most obvious in the opening stanza of 'The Kiss – August Rodin, 1886' in which, as the title suggests, the author embodies another famous sculpture and states: 'Kisses like dreams are made/of wishes & fears', equating 'kisses' with 'wishes' and 'dreams' with 'fears' through a subtle and seamless use of assonance.
As mentioned before, there are many kisses, caresses, much love making and a great deal of love to be found in Lea's volume, most noticeably in the book's second section, 'Where Is the Love?' At their best, the poems of this section display Lea's virtuosic lyricism alongside evocative and richly suggestive allusions to the reality of romantic/sensual experiences. In 'Love Begins with a Vision', for example, she writes:
think of a swallow's wheeling
flight flaring out
like a flamenco dancer's skirt
or think of an aircraft flaring
nose tipped up
to slow before landing
This is a superbly anti-representational verbal simulation. Not only does this poem refuse to describe the event of falling in love – by, say, nominating two human protagonists engaged in an act that symbolises falling in love – its heady confluence of alliterations (and other sound patterns) overwhelms and almost prevents the production of (prosaic) corollaries in the reader's mind. As a result, the presentation of a swallow's flight or that of an aircraft landing refute the urge to be immediately read as metaphors (and hence be reduced to a non-linguistic signified) and instead function as irreducible, and indeed poetic, lyrical constructs that hint at the beginning of love without truncating the richness of the experience and without resorting to a quotidian and singular expression of an emotion.
This almost post-structuralist preference for insinuation over representation is not, however, maintained throughout The Other Way Out. The sequence 'Routine Love Poem', for example, as a suitably (and perhaps excessively) accessible piece of realist writing, can only function by making references, and hence becoming secondary, to the primacy of an erotic reality. In the context of this poem's direct depiction of a sexual relationship, 'he has touched her/here & here & here' could only be referring to one, indeed routine, actuality: the man touching the woman's body; and 'here' is incapable of referring to anything other than the erogenous zones of the woman's body. As such, the reader is prevented, or at least discouraged, from reading anything other than the author's intention into this text, and is provided with a rather conventional verbal representation.
The same reliance on an a priori erotic reality can be seen in the long poem 'Amo Te Solo' in the other title under discussion in this review, Kevin Hart's collection, Young Rain. Here we once again find a man and a woman engaged in foreplay – 'You whispered in my ear. You wanted me/To touch you somewhere new' – and whilst Hart's representation is intimate and tactile, it is still only a poem about sex, and hence supplementary and inferior to actual sex. Plato, one may recall, might rightly query why we need poems about sex if we can have sex in the flesh. What precisely is the purpose of a mimetic supplement of a sexual act? A displacement of the sexual act perhaps, as Derrida may have it? And if so, are erotic poems such as these in fact renunciations of actual sex?
Starting my review of Hart's heartfelt and enjoyable collection with such questions is certainly ungenerous. But I raise these issues not only because I have a personal predilection for a conceptually and theoretically alert and progressive poetics, but also because Hart is recognised internationally for his studies of post-structrualist thinkers such as Derrida and Blanchot. He is also, of course, one of Australia's most acclaimed poets, described by none other than the doyen of Anglophone literary criticism Harold Bloom as 'one of the major living poets of the English language'. As such, one may have reasonably lofty expectations of this, his sixth full collection of poetry. Thankfully, Young Rain does not disappoint and contains many instances of Hart's trademark soulful, meditative lyricism.
One major rhetorical element that provides Hart's verse with its emotional power is his persistent use of apostrophe. By turning away from his actual addressee – the reader – and reverting to what the American critic Helen Vendler might term the 'invisible listener', Hart effortlessly engages the reader through an indirect dialogic voice. His 'To Think of You Tonight (after Pedro Salinas)', for example, may be addressed to the Christian deity, but its use of the second person pronoun inevitably invites and involves the reader in the text's discourse:
To think of you tonight
Was not to think of you, not me alone
With just my thoughts. The whole wide world was there
Along with me, and thinking you all through the night.
It is easy to warm to Hart's unpretentious and straightforward language, even if one may find his claiming that the entire world is in some form or shape revering a creator presumptuous and tendentious. Hart's tone, religious as it often is, does not seem preachy, and remains accessible and congenial throughout. Even in a poem such as 'Dark Retreat', his direct appellation of the monotheistic god does not necessarily deter from the text providing a literary – as opposed to devotional – experience. And one may indeed question my deployment of a binary opposition between the literary and the spiritual. Can anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of poetry (of the Old Testament, the Sufis, Milton, Blake and Eliot, to name but a few) seriously entertain the idea that religious faith and poetic voice cannot coexist?
The issue here is not whether or not Hart's poems are too religious. In fact, as someone with some interest in medieval mystical poetry, I am perplexed by the extent to which Hart's obviously religious urges have been restrained by a casual, unassuming voice that includes the occasional swearword. Perhaps it is precisely this ability to contain (and perhaps even at times conceal) the religious content in an ostensibly secular style that has provided Hart with a readership beyond the Christian community. And one of the major themes of his poetry that could possibly appeal to any religious, agnostic, atheist or spiritually indifferent reader, is, as mentioned before, sex.
It can be said that the book's longest poem, 'Amo Te Solo', contains many, at times explicit, representations of sex – e.g. 'My fingers slowly moving up your thigh/Will not put out the fire/I've worked all evening to burn in you' – without moving beyond description. Perhaps more successful are poems that depict sexual/romantic themes and motifs by merging the poet's – very Australian and at times very macho – wit with somber mediations on metaphysical possibilities. 'The Past', for example, begins with the speaker recounting his falling in love with a woman by sexualising her profession as a sandwich maker:
And so my sandwiches got high with ham:
They dripped with mayonnaise and frayed with sprouts
While I just gazed at her and murmured, 'Swiss;
Tomatoes; onion; lettuce; pepper; salt.'
I had to ask her out: my sandwiches
Had got too big to eat!
The sandwich as metaphor for penis may not be, if I may use a pun, to everyone's taste; but Hart's good-natured playfulness renders the potentially juvenile humorous – ''What would you like on that?' Susanna asked/When kissing me in bed. 'The lot,' I'd say' – while also incorporating the theme of the passage of time and the melancholy realisation that nothing lasts forever: 'Some nights I'd wake up scared to hell by time./Susanna was still there, in white whipped sheets,/And sleepily I'd hold her tight, and hold/Our evenings tight'. There is, in other words, something profound – philosophical and/or religious – pulsating beneath the surface of Hart's seemingly self-centered and/or secular texts; and the persistence of this subliminal element provides his poetry with depth and dimension.
All in all, these two books present the reader with highly readable and accomplished instances of contemporary Australian poetry dealing with the reality and, occasionally, the Real of human sexuality and love (among other things). Neither Bronwyn Lea's The Other Way Out nor Kevin Hart's Young Rain conveys a formally innovative or intellectually radical poetics, but both publications are appealing, sophisticated and, finally, sexy additions to Giramondo Publishing's list. It has been great fun reviewing them.