Ash by Alison Croggon
Cusp Books, 2006
Stories of Bird by Lucy Holt
Poets Union Inc., 2005
Of the two chapbooks under review, Lucy Holt's exquisitely crafted poetry in Stories of Bird pecks at single moments, both from an intimate as well as a bird's-eye view. Her use of symbolism is focused and sensory. Hers are deep and personal poems, with some empathetic politics, that draw the reader in. Alison Croggon's chapbook Ash, on the other hand, speaks with a more despairing voice. Hers is an exploration of mood. Her poems flow together through pain and awareness. They are more all-embracing than Holt's, connecting history and broad spatiality to the personal; but fear, emptiness, darkness and blood are their prevailing themes.
Both poets allude to the feminine experience. Holt's opening poem 'Dying Bird' begins with a description of the natural death of a bird, but goes on to depict what can be seen as an allusion to domestic violence: 'Violence is hidden/from death'. She comments more directly on sex and religion in 'The Ontological Whore – 'Her opening was the very point of contact between Hell and men' – and on gender in 'Herculine Barbin', where a transvestite has hidden her true sex. The transvestite has nightmares about her autopsy 'when a gonad would be unearthed like a jewel'.
Croggon narrates as a 'she', a nurturing voice threatened by desolation. The third person narrator cares too deeply, and feels overwhelmed. In the introductory passage to the second section of her chapbook, for example: 'She writes her body with the tips of her fingers but it is no longer her body. The words are not her they belong to nobody. She writes to slough off her name'. She is in great despair and art is the only answer; 'we need poems/as we need bread' (from 'Poem for John'). The female nurturer holds in her arms the weight of dying nature, the fuzziness of history, and the confusedness of the present. In 'Some Steps' she speaks of hardened lovers, abandoned children, prophets, dead animals, and an invisible idol. Yet she remains as openly romantic and tender: 'and o love, I am flesh, brief flesh/blossoming towards you' (from section 'iii, III' of a narrative of loss).
Holt's focus is private and precise, and is fixed on individual moments. She alludes to history without straying from a specific place; she alludes to place without shifting in time. Her poems are strict, yet stationary items can stand as symbols for what is not present. In 'Grandmoth', for example, a moth emerges from a jewellery box, and with it come memories of the author's grandmother. 'Methods for City' explains a place of observation where fear and desire possibly overlap: 'Under half-moon you/cannot make out the shape of lover from stranger'. She deals with occasional historical moments as well. In '28th December 1908', for example, the reader is transported to the minds of the people experiencing the Messina Straits earthquake as either the wrath of God or the fury of a personified nature. There is also 'The Children of Mato Grosso do Sul', an anti-colonial poem that comments on the suicides of Guaran?? children forced off their ancestral lands.
Croggon does not so closely involve the reader in specific moments, but instead thrusts them into 'all' moments. Her poems are more edgy and extensive. This gives them a vigorous urgency and anger that can often peter out to a note of despair. The voice of the poems articulates no solution, and even the deepest joys are wrapped in the awareness of transience, the inevitability of the end. Art both purges and further frustrates:
how to define pain? is it the conscious
nib which pierces skin
over and over until the mind
maddens into froth?
Pain is persistent. The poems continually use the words 'blood' and 'darkness', and often refer to water and ice, coldness, music, breath and perfume; resulting in a gothic mode. There are many poems which fit into this style by combining a moody register with haunting motifs such as stone, 'bruised sky', birch trees and dark birds:
then lovers leave their blood
to cool on the stems of briars
the lame king closes the shutters
against the wasteland
Such poems make the whole chapbook atmospheric. They can also be seen as romantic nostalgia, coupled with a contemporary understanding of depression, harking back to a simpler age when words did not '…clothe themselves in dazzle' (from 'Remnants'). Croggon's expressions of love are inextricably tied with loss. The personal losses are tied in with anger at the world's losses. In 'Beasts', for example:
Panic flicks in those slotted eyes but the sadness
is only ours. Police hunt corpses in rubbish dumps,
a pregnant mother and child. Beneath the surface,
submarine cries burst the ears of whales.
She speaks of surfaces and emptiness. Once again, there seems to be a romantic nostalgia for quietness and solitude. There are too many things to deal with stacked upon one another, saturating the poet: 'all my losses all my losses' (from 'Unborn Child'). Even at love's beginnings there is despair about what might come, and the poet's heart '…is a reticence/on the brink of invasion' (from 'i, II'). There are inevitable and continual disappointments during the actual relationship – 'the seed, harsh the fire, harsher still the heart's/voiceless need' (from 'iv, II') – and, in the end, the author contemplates the complexity of it all. The poet's voice is controlled but loaded with meaning, passionate and incensed all at once:
because a day
is made of such different things
shining and avarice
many possible swords
the dust in my hair and the petals
falling from a wet sky
In contrast, Holt's love poems express hope and depict the intimate moments that their author shares with her lover/s. She is, however, still aware of the impermanence of things. While the lovers are intertwined in the short poem 'Sedimentary Layers', for example, the poet quirkily wonders if a geologist would be '…a little perplexed/over whether you or I came first'. In poems such as 'My Lover Meets the Bower Bird', 'A Short Arachnid Study in Your Absence', and 'A Short Mollusca Study in Your Absence', she observes and analyses her lover/s both in their presence and in their absence. These observations are romantically expressive. In 'A Short Arachnid in Your Absence', for example:
Through her web your face is gridded
I can plot your expressions,
consume you in segments as if
I too were spider.
Holt has a few narrative poems as well, such as 'The Head', a tale tracing the progressions of family at a woman's table, and who she remains through time. There is also 'Noon Swim', presumably based on a childhood memory, a poem with perfect imagery:
Unserious Sirens, we swirl
like blood drops in water
then float, flush against sky,
meniscus breasts bobbing
with pelvises: roses-of-bone.
Both chapbooks include a flower poem as well as a bridge poem. Holt's 'The Flowers in the Vase Clench into a Gang of Fists in the Night' is warm and intimate; its flowers are sentinels watching over the author and her lover as they sleep. The poem is skilfully structured like a lullaby or a nursery rhyme. Croggon's 'A flower', on the other hand,is about the relationship between bodies and death. She expresses a need to not be buried, not to '… bear the heaviness of flowers/which smell of the desire to touch/what can't be touched again'. Croggon's flowers confront, not unlike Sylvia Plath's 'Tulips'. The two authors' bridge poems are also very different: Holt's bridge symbolises hope by joining separated episodes of life (in 'The Third End'); while Croggon has a moment of solace on her 'real' bridge, a rare hint of positivity and stillness (in 'From the West Gate Bridge').
The two chapbooks Stories of Bird and Ash are incredibly different, but both convey authentically poetic experiences. Whether Holt's controlled poems or Croggon's expressive ones, neither feel contrived. Whether romantic, beatific, skilful, hopeful and somewhat youthful as with those in Stories of Bird; or dark, moody, pertinent, and expansive as with those in Ash; they are absorbing and easy to dive into. Overall, the cohesive thematics of Ash make it a more resonant volume, as the poems' mood persists and pervades the reader for some time after reading. But Holt's snapshots of vividly realised moments are best suited to picking up and reading one at a time.
Angela Meyer is a young Australian writer and maintains a weblog.