Review Short: Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems

By | 18 February 2019

Sun Music: New and Selected Poems by Judith Beveridge
Giramondo Publishing, 2018

Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems begins with the eponymous poem of her debut collection, The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), concerning a giraffe in a zoo.

She languorously swings her tongue
like a black leather strap as she chews
and endlessly licks the wire for salt
blown in from the harbour.
Bruised-apple eyed she ruminates
towards the tall buildings
she mistakes for a herd:
her gaze has the loneliness of smoke.

This opening stanza gives us key features of Beveridge’s poetics: a lyricism notable for its wit and startling imagery, balanced by an intense interest in language’s sonic potential.

In ‘How to Love Bats’, from her second collection Accidental Grace (1996), we find another characteristic feature of Beveridge’s work: the conjunction of playfulness and catalogue. To love bats, the poem states, one must ‘Spend time in the folds of curtains. / Seek out boarding school cloakrooms. / Practice the gymnastics of wet umbrellas.’ In ‘Flying Foxes, Wingham Brush’ – one of the 33 new poems in Sun Music – Beveridge brilliantly reprises this last image, describing some bats as ‘a collection of broken / business umbrellas’. These lines can suggest, wrongly, that Beveridge’s poems on non-human animals – of which there are many – are primarily concerned with comic or quasi-comic conceits. Beveridge’s poems about animals are notably mixed in their tone and approach, bringing in the elegiac and historical, in addition to the comic, and they never sentimentalise or trivialise the lives of animals.

These poems show Beveridge as a profoundly post-Romantic poet for whom animals are part of a natural world that is, if not redemptive, then consolatory and inspirational. This domain, and these animals, allow for the poet to look beyond her own subjectivity, and to deepen and renew her, and our, understanding of the material word. While a number of later poems – such as ‘To My Neighbour’s Hens’ – also show a more explicit animal-rights perspective, all of Beveridge’s animal poems are essays into the otherness of their non-human subjects. In her extraordinarily artful linguistic constructions, Beveridge paradoxically allows us access to the profoundly non-linguistic world that animals both inhabit and represent.

But Beveridge is not, of course, concerned only with the world of nature and animals. Many of her poems focus on humans, often (as is consistent with her post-Romantic poetics) marginal figures, as seen in ‘Man Washing on a Railway Platform Outside Delhi’ and ‘The Saffron Picker’. These, and numerous other, poems attend to and/or give voice to subjects who are conventionally voiceless and unseen. Perhaps the most ambitious example of this project in Sun Music is ‘Driftgrounds’, a sequence that had the subtitle ‘Three Fishermen’ when it appeared in Beveridge’s 2009 collection, Storm and Honey. These poems, in their depictions of fishing life, tilt Beveridge’s poetic more to the side of the sonic. As Beveridge points out in Sun Music’s introductory ‘Author’s Note’, ‘I have amplified the poems’ nuances and tones through their sound structures’. This is easily seen (or heard) in ‘The Shark’, the sequence’s opening poem, which begins:

We heard the creaking clutch of the crank
as they drew it up by cable and wheel
and hung it sleek as a hull from the roof.

There is the ghost of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in this poem, with its conjunction of heavily stressed syllables and alliteration. In the rest of the sequence we also find the use of caesura as a structural unit, a key feature of alliterative verse. But as ‘Spittle Beach’ shows, Beveridge’s imagistic inventiveness (and the modern world) is far from overwhelmed by such stylisation:

       Near the boathouse is a washed-up skate,
a boy lifts it above his head—he’s a waiter with a drinks tray—
        then he hurls it hard, back to the sea. It whidders down
               as quietly as a UFO.

For what it’s worth, I wasn’t altogether sure about this sequence upon its release, but its appearance here makes me realise that what I took for factitiousness is a sophisticated example of piscatorial (anti-)pastoral. Like classical pastoral, these poems strategically confuse the simple and the complex, the baroque and the unadorned, and the sophisticated and the rustic, as seen especially in the lyrical dialogues of the fishermen. But like modern anti-pastoral, they do not idealise the milieu, offering instead some of Beveridge’s most inventive, gritty, and (sometimes literally) visceral poetry.

‘Driftgrounds’ is narrated by one of the fishermen, showing Beveridge’s attraction to the dramatic monologue. As Beveridge writes in her ‘Author’s Note’, ‘I use masks and voices frequently in my poetry. These allow me to open up and expose my emotions in ways that are far more interesting to me than simply using the first person singular’. The interest in the dramatic monologue and the sequence also comes together in Beveridge’s poems on the life of Siddhattha Gotama (who became known as the Buddha). Sun Music doesn’t include any of this poetry. Instead, Beveridge promises (again in her ‘Author’s Note’) a new volume that will bring together a selection of this work (which includes the 2014 collection, Devadatta’s Poems) with a new sequence on this subject.

Because of this, Sun Music doesn’t represent a career in the way a ‘New and Selected’ usually does. But it is nevertheless a profoundly important summary of one of Australia’s leading lyric poets. (It also makes for an interesting comparison with 2014’s Hook and Eye, a selection of Beveridge’s poems published as part of Paul Kane’s Braziller Series of Australian Poets. Interested readers should definitely seek out Kane’s deeply insightful introductory note to that selection.) The new poems in Sun Music deepen Beveridge’s characteristic concerns and practices, especially with regard to place, animals, and imagistic catalogue. They include ‘Peterhead’, with its memorable description of the eponymous Scottish coastal town – ‘Stone houses, side streets // with shadows limping like cruelled dogs’—and two powerfully elegiac poems, ‘Sun Music’ and ‘As Wasps Fly Upwards’.

Even within these elegiac works, Beveridge’s poetry is notably sensual, deeply concerned with embodiment and the intense rendering of corporeal (sometimes erotic) experience. Beveridge’s sensual mode is related to her stylistic exuberance, a feature one finds throughout The Domesticity of Giraffes, and still present in her later work. But, as also seen throughout her career, Beveridge is clear-eyed about the world’s injustices and violence. There are few lyric poets, here or elsewhere, who write with Beveridge’s skill and power. It is not surprising that Beveridge is so esteemed among her fellow poets and readers.

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