In ‘Time on the Merri Merri Creek’ Barber writes a long philosophical poem that is intensely elegiac and central to the collection’s concerns. The poem opens:
There is afternoon, day’s unreliable beauty, the need to make the serpent friend; the traveller, that other eye, asking help, from whom? Help from absent gods, an imagined soul? The cry is in the leaves and falling to the creek. The creek is quiet, struggling, the drought-starved water slow between its stones, dark and worn. It must reach the river. There is loss. The silent stranger’s voice is saying help, help me, to an unknown intangible, a heart’s heart, the only sightless sustenance. On the footbridge, where slow rapids fall to a lower bed, a black dog waits, avoids contact. His earth-brown mate runs up, escorts the stranger over the bridge across the stream.
Here is an agnostic confidence in searching expression and a breadth of illusion, which is deeply moving. And while the poem does not seek easy consolations to the loss included in old age, nor does it deny hope for renewal:
There are trees marked for destruction, willow, poplar, elm. Felled, chipped, they will nurture sedge, wattle and gum along the banks: an imagined memory, a deliberate renewal.
This stoic approach in accepting old age as the ‘country of nothing’ in which ‘a long dry grows / quietly, slowly’ and where ‘all desire slows/to the rhythm of silent days’ only accentuates the rejuvenation that comes with drought-breaking rains:
And then you came, falling like small rain blown from a distance on a western wind.
There is always the ‘half-and-half time when winter fades’ but there is also the time when ‘rain and sudden sun together join the burdened air’ to ‘pour their brilliance across the flow’. There is a day, Barber writes in ‘Sudden Rain’, when a creek can grow ‘fat and fierce’:
A confusion of broken branches, dead wood, fallen debris, lie across the footbridge, up the banks, carried like a wave to weave wild tangles against the trees. The rain on Sunday night filled the watercourse, threw all the failures of a dry year, all unaccountable wishes, into full view from the public railway line.
As with the poetry of Jenni Nixon and Meg Mooney, Connie Barber’s poetry is technically self-assured about subjects that are as varied as they are important. Here are three alternative voices in contemporary Australian poetry that are as unpretentious as they are deservingly insistent.