Maria Takolander Reviews Bronwyn Lea

20 December 2013

In ‘Driving into Distance’, the poet admits: ‘I guess at some point I want to live / contently in the body of another. There, it is /said.’ Consistent with the reluctance or awkwardness of that confession, the bodies of others in Lea’s poems may provide something in the way of erotic charge, but they provide little in the way of untroubled union. In ‘Routine Love Poem’, images associated with domestic chores and the repetition of key lines—‘they make & remake coffee / they make & remake the bed’—evoke an oppressive atmosphere. The poem is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’, which explores similar territory and likewise employs effective repetition. However, while Plath’s proto-feminist poetry may have gestured towards escape—‘Daddy’, after all, is a poem about moving on (the last line proclaiming ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through’)—the work of the ‘post-feminist’ Lea can embrace flight. ‘Woman Holding a Vase’, named after a Léger painting, expresses nothing short of terror at the prospect of inhabiting a more traditional feminine role of stasis, as the poet imagines herself as a still life, remembering lovers or ‘arranging flowers / with timeless jazzy optimism’. In ‘California Morning’, the poet and a female friend are ‘restless’ in the aftermath of failed relationships:

You’re thinking you’ll go
to Bordeaux again or maybe Senegal

and I’m thinking Havana or anywhere. Our dreams
are distant and rife with living as the waters

of a tropical sea. Earlier I think I heard you
cry but then the sounds from things

that won’t be pinned are quickly gone.

The dismissive last lines of the poem defy images of the single, spurned woman as a victim. Instead, the poem emphasises a liberating sense of perspective and possibility. The wonderful ‘Women of a Certain Age’ similarly celebrates renewal:

Women of a certain age are waking up
in the middle of things—birth and death feel
blessedly far away—the raw edge of real
departure and arrival a distant memory…

The poem, making use of repetition, this time to provide an incantatory rather than oppressive atmosphere, continues:

Women of a certain age—loving this
lightness—are rolling onto their sides,
rising out of their beds and out of their bodies,
imagining themselves free of the earth
and its drive to replace them, they are speeding
like comets over the edge of the universe…

Escape and movement provide dominant motifs in Lea’s poetry, as suggested. These motifs often appear most strongly in poems of an intensely personal and romantic nature. In the ‘list’ poem ‘Where is the Love?’, for instance, the poet provides a number of unromantic and comic responses to the question in the poem’s title. These include: ‘In the belly of a bloated toad’ and ‘Off to witness the lemmings suicide’. However, other lines take refuge in the embrace of the greater world: ‘Out the gate and onwards to fathom the infinite’ and ‘In the battle cry may you live ten thousand years’.

The titles of Lea’s earlier collections, Flight Animals and The Other Way Out, highlight Lea’s concern with escape habits and escape routes. It is also the case that Lea’s poems repeatedly trope ‘feet’—that measure of poetic movement and basic vehicle of human movement. Lea’s poems also rove continents and nations: North America, South America, Papua New Guinea, Australia. Indeed, in enduring Romantic style, some of the most striking poems are about love of place, rather than people. The poem ‘Seferis’, named after the Greek lyric poet, conveys rapture before nature:

Every day carried away more & more
by this drunkenness. The sea. The mountains
dance without moving—I’m crazy
about the trees in this light. The sea
is breathless…

The poem ends: ‘I hate knowing / my life will not be long enough.’

Flight, however, is not figured without some ambiguity. While it is associated with energy and vitality, even love and ecstasy, flight also involves an avoidance of difficulty, loss, mourning, memory. In ‘Feet’ we read of a ‘weeping / of the whole body’:

I’m not sure how
I knew but I knew it early

before things happened—
love, death and other sorrows—
I knew sorrow in the body

before I knew its source.

In the final lines of the poem, the poet expects ‘the cry of doves’ in response to her sorrow, but ‘it rains only silence.’ Here we learn how part of the attraction and solace of the natural world lies precisely in its indifference to human suffering, and the perspective ‘above and beyond’ that it therefore provides. In ‘The Cairn’, the poet imagines that ‘a simple stone / conscripted into a leaf into a human / sign’ can supply her with guidance as she explores Mount Warning in New South Wales. However, the cairn resists the Romantic fantasy: ‘I promise you I solve nothing’. The cairn encourages her: ‘Check yourself’, ‘Make a decision and be on your way.’ Such an independent spirit is everywhere apparent in this stunning book of poetry.

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About Maria Takolander

Maria Takolander is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. Her short-story collection, The Double (Text 2013), was short-listed for the Melbourne Prize for Literature New Writing Award, and her most recent book of poems, Trigger Warning (UQP 2021), won a Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

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