Ocean Island by Julian Croft
John Leonard Press, 2006
The Yellow Dress by Yve Louis
Five Islands Press, 2005
Watching waves breaking on the shore, the rhythms that emerge are, of course, only part of the larger pattern of the ever-mobile natural world we seem to observe. The poems in Julian Croft's Ocean Island suggest the occluded and multifarious that lies beneath the surface, gesturing towards the tidal, and larger worlds that dwarf human concerns. They return to a paradox of simplicity emerging from complexity, and the inverse: a kind of pure clarity that emerges from the anatomy of the difficult, the contradictory, and the awkward, ugly and troubling.
The rhythms of Ocean Island bear a quality of revealing, on the surface, only part of the story, or, perhaps, the through-line of a story. The book comprises seven sets of poems, each centred around a figurative place or a meditative refrain. Like the poems' overarching preoccupation of the liminal space of the sea's and land's meeting, however, the categories bleed and seep into one another, so that the questions of one section – the meanings of sand, for instance, and the ways in which it is implicated in the creative and destructive – find their echoes in another section, such as where games' cruel edges grind away at the child's nascent sense of self. The effect is of isolated, deep meditations that then reverberate with other considerations, producing a series of careful, sensitive larger reflections. The echoes – the way a poem rhymes with another in terms of its imagery, or re-imagines similar terrain – repay the kind of close, slow reading that belongs to an ideal world evoked throughout these poems, and one threatened by the forces of natural and human mobility that tend to endanger the stillness cherished within the quite places the poems celebrate as in 'Making Waves':
and the story – the sine curve to climax – is waves laid over
interfering and fitting, humped in chaos, slumped in order
until there is only one line you hear
These philosophically alert and emotionally complex poems are poems that reside, or, to use an opposite metaphor, continue to move, on repeated readings. There is a sense of economy or even understatement at their surface, that emerges from their spare diction, and recurrent tone of casual asides in a long, intimate conversation, such as 'or you can forget the lot' and 'whatever, the poem tells you' in 'Sandpiper'. The use of the second person is part of this, but, like the surface of the sea, it is beguiling and disingenuous in its apparent simplicity. 'You' might feel like the close companion to whom the speaker has addressed a line here or there, but the more dramatic possibility is of a self torn open for a self-examination that is relentless, wise and self-lacerating (as in 'Child, father, man' where 'you' is 'still full of self-lacerating anger at deeds and words/more probably forgotten by others'). That self wrenched open is examined with, at once, an almost scientific detachment, often cruel in its lack of evasion, and passionate re-imagining of the past.
Who, then, is 'you'? The grammar of the search is uncomfortable. The speaker observes a younger self at various ages, and finds there only part of the answer to that question. In 'Suburbs' the coastal landscape watches the tearing down of houses to make way for a future built by 'the new tribe of the young and the rich', while the speaker remembers writing, eighteen years ago, of hunger, of hunting. How much that hunger is remembered, or remains, is the question that hangs over the poem like the gliders the speaker observes, though only through their women, who observe them too. The poems' fathers chastise themselves ('To possessive by half/I wanted to hang on to everything' in 'Faults'), or are chastised ('you nagged and shamed your sons' in 'Child, father, man'), and since the fathers and sons are bred of 'the same bone' anyway, the lacerating scrutiny cuts both ways. Yet since this is counterpointed by lines and poems about sons that are exquisitely tender, the sense is of that scathing scrutiny directed first at the self as son, then father. It is, overtly, about the 'puzzles' of 'this piece of work, man, incomplete, still/coming into being, without the aid of God, self alone', (in 'Child, father, man'), and Croft brings a poetics of gentle wisdom to bear on the question.
Amidst all this is playfulness. This is most (but not only) apparent in the 'Games' section, in which each poem remembers a childhood game, and plays with its resonances. In 'Simon says', for instance, a series of blunt imperatives substitutes for more complex moral guidance, satirising the rigid and bludgeoning that bruise and perhaps shape the child. These poems capture and chart some of the socially sanctioned violences within Australian culture, but wryly, teasingly, and without the obviousness this observation suggests: 'Someone, and it's not you,/has the ball,/and this is bad news' (in 'Pastings'), but underscored by painful, simple lines amplified by their figurative resonances, such as these in 'Concentration':
so when the tray's removed
and the competition starts,
you can't remember anything by heart.
Throughout the collection is an appealing humour, such as in 'Sandpiper', where the bird is imagined in various ways, including the possibility that it evokes the poet, a possibility put lightly, playfully: 'that's the poet again/defying gravity chasing something/unseen in the dunes'. The figure of the poet as sandpiper resounded for me when reading Yve Louis' The Yellow Dress, a book in which the poet, in a number of ways, like Croft's bird, defies gravity, and pursue the unseen into the dunes. This element of defiance or daring in Louis' poetry shows in its drama, and its sensuality.
Louis is a poet whose work observes the textures of the world of the senses: 'cedar drawers/with camphor on their breath' (in 'Other lives'), 'the snap of frost in hedges' ('Inheritance'), 'driving through crossbars of sunlight' (in 'Aubade'). The poems' drama takes on an array of shapes, from acute observations of the natural world's dramatic mobility to the more overt examples of the human sort, such as the energy that runs through the sequence 'The Black Kimono', in which the subject, Lilla, experiences the start of her marriage. Again, the sensual details tell much of the story, such as Lilla's moving in with her new husband, his first wife's 'douche-can still looped from its hook/behind the bathroom door' (in 'The wedding'). Lilla brings her innocent trousseau with its 'pearl-lustre', 'her hips, her behind/ the vulnerable small of her back', and her 'true name' to a marriage that has no place for her, in which the small and larger pain of that exclusion becomes the stony abode the couple lives in ('stones' and stoniness recur in their literal and figurative guises). Later, Lilla takes scissors to that pear-lustre nightie, in a gesture of self-laceration and abnegation complicated by its defiance and liberatory aspects. It is through the details and texture of fabrics that Louis creates Lilla, whose own sensuality – her sensitivity to the textures – is part of the cause of her temperamental isolation. In this sense the sequence is as much about temperamental misfit, and the social conditions that demand the relinquishing of aspects of the self.
This theme runs through the work, and, like Croft's ocean and island, the yellow dress of the title underpins the collection. 'Underpins' is probably the right verb, too, in a context in which the sartorial and its language brings a focus to the making of clothing from various fabrics, which in turn works as a metaphor for assembling a life, from a pattern, or not, or, as in 'The Black Kimono', unmaking one, unpicking or cutting through a garment that no longer fits or suits. These makings and unmakings run through a collection whose structure – five sections each naming a coloured garment – hints at ideas of wearing or not wearing, performance, adornment and covering that also run through the collection. Allusions to myth work a little like accessories, deepening an effect, illuminating an aspect, drawing attention to detail. In the final section, 'The Yellow Dress', a yellow dress discovered in an op shop is described as hinting at meanings:
the dress wafts a cabal of meanings,
silky whisperings of something older
and dark to be plumbed.
And as yellow is 'an unnamed colour/splitting from white', the sequence is a mysterious evocation of an unnamed – 'unwordable' – love, with a submerged carpe diem just below the surface, split from, but still recalled. The allusion to the cabal prefaces a sequence that tugs at secrets, but seems to resist their revelation, and perhaps, as the word suggests, conveys a fear of what they might contain, and the ways in which it might cut away at what appears to exist. When the speaker concludes the first poem of the sequence with a negation:
it doesn't signify
that we are too many years,
too many allegiances too late.
The sense of both possibility and its refusal are balanced within the negative phrasing, and the sequence continues to test whether, indeed, it is, in that phrase that recalls the despair of Harwood's speaker in 'In the Park', who meets 'someone that I loved once- too late'. For Harwood's speaker the lover is too late, and feigning indifference is, too, and in The Yellow Dress there is a sense of this tension. The poems are garbed in mystery, at times perhaps not revealing as much of their secrets as they could, so that they seem slightly elusive. Yet many reverberate, and, like Croft's, have an intriguing mobility about them.
The Yellow Dress, however, is quite a different experience to Ocean Island (whose author also lives in Armidale), and its elegance, drama, sensuality and intrigue are only slightly, sometimes, occluded by a leaning towards mystery, secrecy, and elusiveness. The two collections suggest the powerful creativity associated with Armidale, home to other writers such as poets Michael Sharkey and Tony Bennett and novelists Wendy James and Sophie Masson. Considering the relative media neglect shown towards Croft's poetry (despite his achievements as Emeritus Professor of English at the University of New England), and towards James' acclaimed first novel, a question that emerges for me is whether geographical isolation affects the establishment and deepening of reputation in Australia. Is there a geography of neglect? I hope not, but the remarkable creative output of writers from the area seems under-acclaimed.
Felicity Plunkett lives in Brisbane, where she reads, writes, and teaches Literature and Poetics at the University of Queensland.