REVIEW: SARAH DAY, 'THE SHIP'
Brandl and Schlesinger, 2004
Having read and admired Sarah Day's poetry for many years I came to her new collection The Ship with high expectations. While many poems lived up to these expectations - high energy poems of great inventiveness and humanity - overall I felt at first, and still largely feel, a sense of disappointment with this collection.
Often the poetry seemed lacking something - passion, difficulty, risk, that sense of pushing beyond the comfortable, of poetry being forged by a genuine pressure. A scene that came back while reading much of the book was a conversation with John Forbes outside Fisher Library probably in 1973. John criticised Australian literature, and poetry in particular, as being bedevilled by "the fallacy of good intentions" - the notion that being an intelligent literary person, armed with a worthy topic and having one's heart in the right place, should be enough automatically to make poetry. The problematics of this approach to poetry seem to me highlighted by poems such as "High Fire Danger", "The Second Anniversary", "Russia", "Submersion" and "Neighbour". In the last the predictable sentiment of lines like "We'll miss your benign presence/ in this street, the time you took/ to confer on others kind thoughts,/ the wisdom of your years" underscores the lack of the risk-taking, the freshness, the daring I look for in poetry that claims me. Carefully written, offending no one, in the right tone for an elegy, it blands down to the final image of each weatherboard house disclosing "its spectral corridor of previous residents". The slightly stilted "spectral" adds to the sense that too much effort has gone on here to heighten sentiments and insights that, however heartfelt to the writer, remain uncomfortably close to commonplaces for the reader.
"Submission", a moving portrait of Day's father permanently scarred by the trauma of war, despite the innate power of the story itself, relies on words like "grim" and phrases like "he was never the same again". I couldn't help mentally comparing this poem with Robert Gray's edgy and jarringly disturbing portrait of his mother lost in Alzheimer's and old age, "The Dying Light". Gray doesn't flinch from giving us a full, extraordinarily open, imaginative living of the experience - even at the risk of offending some readers like John Tranter - while Day opts for the far safer surface of the story. Gray's difficult and pained engagement with his subject is registered by the constant tension of language, leading to its rapturous, profoundly moving close. Day, in contrast, remains always the narrator, in the end not taking the reader much beyond where the prose version would have taken them. Nevertheless "Submersion" is skilfully written on its own terms and the emotions come through clearly enough. Doubtless many readers will find it fully satisfying and compelling.
"Russia" recounts what seems to be the story of the Russian submarine that went down a few years back in the Barents Sea. Wavering between commitment to the story and commitment to the deconstruction of the TV presentation of the story, I found this poem less than satisfying. From the opening line "the slow-motion replay", to "a slow death", "the mother...remonstrating for us all", "a forum of motionless men", all seems too predictable in wording, too reliant on pushing the reader's buttons. It seems to remain in the shared public world of earnest discourse and newspaper articles, yet even at that level it seems troubling. Is Day suggesting the woman was spirited away by "the Soviet Interior Ministry", even though the Soviet Union had vanished several years before the event? It simply does not convince me as a poem that had to be written, a poem wrung out of the author's being.
To me Day's poetry in this book shines most strongly when her vision is on the immediate, the natural, the personal, even the beautiful, and where an impulsive imaginative energy has more scope to be at play - poems as clear and fully realised as "Roads", "Out of the Dark", "The Poisoning" or the opening poem of the collection "Underneath the City". Perhaps what stands out with a poem like "Underneath the City" is its open uncertainty, the sense that the poem bends and twists spontaneously:
Underneath the city, voice bends, parodies itself
in whispers, aberrant around corners, the tail-ends
of sentences parse with lost utterances of the unseen.
The rhythm of the voice is edgy, always engaged in seeing more, unable to stop itself. The poem carries menace as well as joy - both seem fully realised in an explosion of awareness. The complexity of what is seen, caught in fresh images, rising and flooding forward, finds a completely convincing idiom and cadence:
Harbingers of dusk; pigeons roost and shit in night's culverts.
They flap and crack, subterranean missives, rising collectively
to meet each dawn.
Even the small matters of each day can become transformed into a journey that probes, questions, takes us somewhere different. "Menace" is one such poem with a delightful sense of specific realities, a voice, a breathless energy that remind me of Elizabeth Bishop. The urban/suburban landscape where "lengths of trees pass by, horizontal,/ as if on their way to their own funerals" shifts and eddies around us. Beyond any messages, any desire to seak a worthy theme, the poem lives its own dynamic life. Day has the rare gift of being able to channel great energy and great precision into masterpieces that seem effortless.
A poem like "Undermining", recounting a landscape devastated by mining, dwells within the consciousness of others in a way wholly energised, quirky, unpredictable, beautifully realised. Day's description of the houses as "casualties/ like returned soldiers/ leaning propped or bound" has a precise laconic edge. The flexible taut rhythm of the poem, its fidelity to experience and its ceaseless inventiveness carry the reader with it, without any sense of the message being overstated or fudged.
The title poem "The Ship" recounts Day's childhood journey from England to Australia by ship. Within the form of a nine-part memory poem, a poem that unequivocally takes as its task the recreation of a deeply significant childhood event, Day's imagination and gift for shifting tones and nuances effectively reinvent a lost world. Humour and precise detail, the colloquial ("hot as hell") and the voluptuous ("stillness unravelled/ in the clove-drenched humid air") all find a place here. I particularly admie the almost invisible structuring whereby this vast medley of perceptions and encounters is used to guide us to the image of the last four lines, as the journey takes us to the edge of a world where there may be no "shared lexicon". All that has gone before gives special poignancy to the closing couplet:
And memory - three plangent notes of the foghorn
signalling departure across the water.
For all my reservations, The Ship contains more than ample demonstration of Day's exquisite inventiveness and brilliance as a poet.
Other reviews by Peter Boyle