South in the World by Lisa Jacobson
UWA Publishing, 2014
For three weeks in Japan I’ve read and re-read Lisa Jacobson’s new collection of poems: in subways, on shinkansen, in parks, cafés, restaurants and my apartment – up on the twelfth floor of the hilly suburb, Dainohara, in Sendai. The poems, now fiercely dog-eared, have become my familiars; challenging, apostrophising and snaking/drifting/sidling into my consciousness, they have shaped my thinking and insinuated themselves into my conversations with ‘native English-speaking’ colleagues, Japanese friends and ex-students.
These are deftly subtle and insightful poems – worldly and ‘spiritual’, artificed to bring out the particularities of a ‘glocal’ Australian consciousness, youthful idealism and a difficult complexity.
Section One opens with the wry ‘Several Ways to Fall Out of the Sky’ and ends with the mock heroic, ‘Habits formed by Eternity’, where ‘God falls to earth with a resounding clang … Dog-tired … in his faded cardigan.’ This is antipodean iconoclasm, as ‘blowflies hover like small black angels’. In ‘Why, When we Fall off things, We Fall Down’, a more venal fall ‘from a car’ to escape the ‘Stable Boys’, some ‘mates’ intent on sexual assault, and the tongue-in-cheek advice to a daughter about gravity add a sense of real danger and whimsical metaphysics to the post-lapsarian consciousness. For Jacobson, the sadness and dividuality of ordinary experience, the ‘deadweight of oxygen; / its brash insistence’, slows our ‘Traffic with Angels’. Though even here, there are ‘Signs of Life’ that, in her womb-with-a-view sonnet ‘Emergence’, Jacobson can see quickening: God’s ‘slow reading’ and the ‘longevity of a prayer’ might register as ‘clouds of budgerigars’ or ‘A woman [turning] like fruit / to the light’. These are rich, suggestive, metaphorical explorations of the ‘wheelbarrow’ that is human life.
Beneath the accomplished variety and plurality of Jacobson’s wry, intelligent metempsychoses there are allusive shape and motif. This collection hinges on comparison and juxtaposition – a pervasively reflective, inevitably ironical imagining where nothing simply ‘is’: everything exists in relation to something else. Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ ghosts these poems, and cumulatively, there is the iteration of a kind of Persephone/Demeter axis which constructs and interprets experience and the world.
The five sections of South in the World seem to move from: i) a sense of having fallen from a kind of grace; into ii) experience/mortality/bushfire; iii) defined or drowned/deepened by relationships and awareness that take one to underworlds (Hades, depression); then iv) beginning to rise through the sex/death nexus that dramatises human mortality; into v) the possibilities and persistence of beauty and choice beyond ‘leaf litter’.
Within this structure, Section Two reflects from Vienna on the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The title poem, ‘South in the World’ fluctuates between a litany of loss ‘where the world is emptied of meaning’ and the regenerative imagery of Chagall’s remarkable painting Green Christ whose ‘hoop of gold rising above / tree level’ suggests metaphysical prospects of renewal. This section also includes poems that discover and explore Jacobson’s Jewish identity (see ‘Old Nazis’ for an evocative sense of the poet’s mixed reactions and complicated judgement, and ‘Photographs of Jews’). There is a strong sense of particular deaths, such as that of Sydney Marxist philosopher Wallis Suchting and ‘Anne Frank’s sister’, as well as the broader, pervasive mortality of ‘Old People’, contextualised by the extinction of the Thylacine. In the final poem of this section, ‘Some Adjustments to the Original Idea’, Jacobson writes:
Still god’s couriers keep beating at the glossy surface of our dreams. A jar rolls through the soul’s white sleep […] and bits of god get caught in the rolling, animal rhythm of things.
Section Three takes us forcefully and wittily through several underworlds from mythology and contemporary culture. Depression arises, for example, in ‘The Virgin Mary Gets Postnatal Depression’ and the sustained, panicky, haunted lines of ‘Walking the Black Dog’. At times the underworld is gendered, as in the suggestive polarity between Persephone and Demeter in ‘All Things’: ‘When first I take his seed upon my tongue / I gag, but soon I swallow them with ease’; or breastfeeding women in Mitcham Hospital, Melbourne:
No man treads here […] our milk the currency of gold, our breasts bewitched by the moon.
Pregnancy is a dreaming ‘Country by the sea’ where the poet speaks through her ‘Amphibian’ experience (linked to other poems exploring a kind of (d)evolution through animal worlds). In ‘Ellipsis’, however, the figure of Jacques Piccard in his bathyscaphe enacts another kind of birth; ‘groaning a symphony … where crabs fidget’. This section also explores the poet’s relationship with her father (defined, like Piccard?) in terms of his experience as a miner at Broken Hill – a kind of ‘ghost [who] / still wanders long-armed tunnels, mute and silver / veined’ and whose father’s death challenges his unbelief:
the unravelling of your quietude […] has you clutching at a chair and the god you don’t believe in
The poem seems to be suggesting that the poet’s father’s scepticism might allow, as Hamlet had to concede, that the world ‘not only on gravity turns’.
Section Four begins with a quartet of impressive poems exploring the role of desire and sexuality in our lives and imagining. ‘The Way We Do In Sex’ is as fine an evocation of the way we’re governed and made helpless by sex/death arousal: ‘your sticky death seeds hold me in their thrall’ (Persephone becomes Demeter?); while ‘Triage’ cleverly worries over maturity’s anxiety that ‘can’t compete with youth or classical dexterity’ and that ‘what’s bound fast can be snapped or unravelled / in an instant’. ‘Morning Ride’ celebrates the ‘urgent heartstrong need / for root and seed that no old god can halt’, seen on the morning train when ‘School girls toss their yellow manes’ (a connection between the animal and graceful energies of girls and horses is a motif through a number of the poems). And ‘Who is to Say’ explores the way ‘all past lovers leave / their sultry trace’ – in the furniture, for example (here ‘a red armchair’), that is both persistent and even comfortable. This section speaks about the difficult relationship between mother and daughter; the gradual breakdown of ‘this contraption we call marriage’; and the balance between remembering and forgetting, evident in the poet’s octogenarian mother, for whom ‘the sun is most luminous / just before it sets’.