Libby Hart Reviews Judith Beveridge

2 November 2009

Storm and Honey by Judith Beveridge
Giramondo Publishing, 2009

Throughout Judith Beveridge's career we have seen her take an element from one volume of poetry and expand on it in her next book. Take for example her first collection, The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987) where she wrote of 'Hannibal on the Alps'. This theme was then redeveloped to become 'Hannibal Speaks to his Elephants' in Accidental Grace (1996). Again and again the subjects of these poems breathe new life into Beveridge's subsequent work, whether it be poems about India, birds and animals, Buddha or the water life of Sydney and beyond. With this as a guide, it is perhaps no coincidence that the three fishermen we were first introduced to in Wolf Notes (2003) reappear in Beveridge's new collection, Storm and Honey, in a series of thirty fictitious poems called 'Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen'.

Beveridge is not new to speaking through others. There is the pedlar and Siddhattha in Wolf Notes, Marco Polo's concubine in Accidental Grace, and the eunuch in The Domesticity of Giraffes, just to name a few. 'Driftgrounds' is then not so much unexplored terrain, but rather a wider landscape of narrative. This series begins strongly with the opening poem, 'The Shark', where we are led through a memory of catching and gutting a shark. The reason for this is unknown until the last stanza:

and our hearts still burn inside us when
we remember, how Grennan with a tool
took out what was left of the child.

Some others in the series, such as 'The Trawlers' and 'The Cast', provide further evidence of just how adept Beveridge is at closing a poem. 'Driftgrounds' as a series is a watery world full with depiction. In 'Spittle Beach' Beveridge describes jellyfish as “globs of glyceride” and a school of fish as “turning the current like a mirror ball”. Furthermore, this series is also an often malevolent landscape, both in the water and on the land. The local kids are portrayed as spiteful troublemakers burning down shacks and piercing jellyfish while the weather causes a restless and disordered life for the three main characters. Beveridge has referenced The Perfect Storm in her notes and this book was never far from my thoughts when reading Storm and Honey, mostly because of the steady threat of thunderstorm and metrological menace on almost every page. Here is an example from 'At 5 am':

Grennan sucks in air along his gums and yells again
               to Davey who is filling the trough
of the gunwale with scrabbling crabs. Lightning
               slips down the sky like a forkful
of buttered sea-worms.

But there are also quieter moments when the poem's unnamed male narrator renames standard fish hooks as if he were a Zen master. In 'Hooks', these become “ibis leaning over the shallows”, “wild-beaked bait-giver” and “greenshanks in flight”. In 'The Book' he spends time pouring over unusual fish names in order to find a decent comeback line the next time Davey, another fisherman, calls him “sweetlips”. Yet in spite of such things 'Driftgrounds' left me frustrated. I so wanted to engage and connect with these fishermen, but I could not. I had a nagging suspicion as I read through this series that Beveridge was perhaps trying too hard and poems like 'Tackle' and 'Joe' were like fragments of short-stories rather than poems. I remained uninvolved because there was a lot of brawn in these poems, but not as much heart as we have come to expect from Beveridge.

I was also troubled by repetition. To repeat yourself in miscellaneous poems is part of the creative process, but to have them collected and so easily recognisable is disappointing. In 'Crew' (Wolf Notes), “Grennan flicks a squid's eye” at the unnamed narrator, whilst in 'At 5 am' Grennan 'throws a squid's eye … at Davey”. Perhaps if Beveridge had extended her notes for Storm and Honey to indicate that she had reworked 'Crew' this would have sat better with me, but I'm not entirely convinced that this is so because duplication occurs in other poems in the collection such as 'Liam'.

If a series is the most prominent part of a volume of poetry it needs to stand on its own two feet and provide something fresh and appealing. I felt that 'Driftgrounds' lagged at times and there was no real sense of culmination. I also couldn't help but think it could have been a much stronger series if five to ten poems were removed through careful editing. Nevertheless the highlight of 'Driftgrounds' for me was the last poem, 'Capricorn' even though it did remind me a little too much of 'Boy with a Kaleidoscope' from Beveridge's second collection, Accidental Grace.

In the second part of Storm and Honey titled 'Water Sapphire' Beveridge continues to explore familiar themes in twelve poems, such as the landscape of Sydney both on land and underwater along with observing rain, people, animals, birds and a memory about bees. The standout poem is 'Appaloosa', a playful meditation on horses, where Beveridge's great naturalist tendencies come shining through:

I have never …
stood in a field while
an old nag worked every acre
only stopping to release difficult knobs of manure

Other poems of note are 'The Hive' and 'The Aquarium'. I believe 'The Hive' is a poem Judith Beveridge has been working through with each collection, and only now can the reader fathom what has been haunting her about bees and dripping honey. In 'The Aquarium' marine inmates are upstaged by the resident octopus:

I watch an octopus luxuriate in its own arms,
then languidly roll them around itself as if it were looking
                                                                               for a loophole,
                               then it loosely lets them out
far beyond its head and mantle, each arm moving as though it had
       taken up a quill
and were writing over and over in slanting, looping letters:
                                 lollygag, lollipop, loolapalooza

I looked forward to reading Storm and Honey with great anticipation. Although it has a lot to admire, I can't help but feel this book was rushed and that given more time and editorial attention it could have been extra special. It is always difficult to follow up a masterpiece and to meet readers' expectations. Ultimately Storm and Honey left me wondering if Beveridge pressured herself to complete this collection before it was ready for the world's scrutiny.

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About Libby Hart

Libby Hart is the author of Fresh News from the Arctic, This Floating World and Wild. Fresh News from the Arctic won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize. This Floating World was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Wild was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and it was named one of the Books of the Year for the Australian Book Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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