Jennifer Compton Reviews Sarah Holland-Batt and Gavin Yuan Gao

By | 19 April 2023

Meanwhile there is another book awaiting my attention. A book by an emerging poet who is stepping out, stepping up, and getting in step. There is a dead parent in the mix, too, in this case it is a mother. The book is dedicated to Liping Yuan, with those touching dates in brackets that indicate a life span. And in the acknowledgements, finally, a memory, gratitude, and the assertion that she is behind every poem the poet writes. Sometimes she is back-grounded, indeed, and sometimes she is resurrected and walks again.

From ‘Alyssum, Honed’,

The dream where your mother made you practise
the oboe all winter until your blood hymned mercy
was the one in which you learned to disown
the snow.
……………………….. Imagine snow in her arms
like a bouquet of sweet alyssum as she walked down
to the water. Imagine her freedom when the river – quivering
silver under the moon's lip – stepped inside her, too. (98)

I’m not sure I quite understand how and why the river stepped inside her ‘too’. This is one of those vernacular slippages which compound and accumulate – and then illuminate – so much of this book. I wondered if the poet was deliberately stepping back from full disclosure on the mechanics of this poetic action. But, I return to the mother. And thus, of course, to another of those fathers.

From ‘One Time, My Father, Crying, Drove into the Dusk’,

Private to a fault, my father dug

so deeply to bury his wounds
it seemed that, even in the keen eyes

of our kith & kin, he did not love her.
But he did. In his slow, watchful way,

recalling the rain's cellophane fingers
dimpling the water in our bird bath,

the scent of persimmons ripening
to a boyish blush in a wicker basket

balanced on the window ledge,
& my mother – the hostess,

the smiling goddess lost on earth
in a human kitchen – kneading her joy

into the sourdough, kneading her
hums & laughter into the hearts

around the table until her voice
hung clear & distinct in my head

as an icicle in a summer town. That
was a lifetime ago.(29)

But the death of a parent is not the whole of life. There are bus rides to be taken and (alas) there are racists to be rebuffed. There are lovers to be enticed and enjoyed with a lyrical intensity. There are ancestral stories of hardship and diaspora to be honoured and recorded, and there is the vast hinterland of cultural heritage to be sketched in with broad strokes, and in a finer hand, delineated with intimate and telling detail. David Malouf writes in his endorsement, ‘Grounded in Chinese as in English, ‘the shadow play of mind’ behind Gavin Yuan Gao’s lyric voice brings to family life and our familiar universe, new colours and the new force and range of feeling.’ I particularly noticed this defamiliarising effect in some of the use of language. For instance, the compound words throughout the collection – mud-robed, foam-encrusted, blinked-out.

From ‘Can Dyslexics Read? Can You Prove It?,

……………….. Later, when I asked
Mrs L if she could help me
with the recitation, help me
make Wordsworth less cruel
on my tongue – my face still burning
with the silver hooks of tears – 
all she taught me was a simple
melody. Sing out the words
though tuneless the singing might be.
Let it trickle clear & slow through the lips
until the clouds stopped ticking
like vaporous bombs & the daffodils
all sheathed their tiger-teeth
while all this time she held my upturned
palms so that I didn't have to wander
lonely through the song. (93)

The very thought of someone (let alone a poet) being lonely (as a cloud) within reach of the sanctuary of (the English) language weighs on me. The sheer anguish of it. The life and death struggle. Which brings me to a poem which I admired (and took to heart the provocative challenge of it) (and also the prompt to empathy).

From ‘海, or Memory as a Water Language’,

…………………………… I think

of how 海, the Chinese word for sea,
depicts a mother with a sunhat, her face misted

by droplets of foam & spray. How memory – 
of origin, of kinship – is always tethered

to water. Womb. Sky. A ribbon of sunset
purpling the known world's edge. How

my own mother, still alive, taught me to write
the sea in a language I've half-forgotten,

chalking strokes on a pebble she'd palmed
carefully to clear away the muck: 海.(53)

Here language and the mother (so to say the mother tongue) meet – and the innocent purpose of the book is revealed. A double tragedy. And the hands of women clear away the muck, and the hands of women hold you and help you through the song.

I did think, as I received both of these eloquent books, that I would be pushed to find any sort of make-shift yoke to span this hard-working pair of poetry oxen together, but as it turns out they are natural antipodes. The Father. The Mother. And then there is the child. What does the child make of it all? Well, I suppose, that is always the very point and purpose of books. Read on!

*Since this review was written, Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Jaguar has been shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and the Stella Prize and long-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize.

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