Review — Collected Poems, Margaret Scott

Montpelier Press, Hobart. 2000

At last, poetry readers and admirers of Margaret Scott have access once again to her work. Montpelier Press have brought together virtually all the poems from the previously published volumes Tracks of Memory (1980), Visited (1983) and The Black Swans (1988)—only a handful are missing, while a number of Black Swans poems are returned to their original places in Tricks of Memory. More recent poems are grouped under the title "Renovations". Collected Poems, insightfully introduced by Philip Mead, affords a satisfying reading experience which is complemented, aesthetically, by the look and feel of the volume itself. Paul Boam's "Waterfall Bay to Fortescue Bay, 1999" arrestingly, alluringly, graces the cover, hinting of the sea's pervasive hold over Scott's imagination. For various reasons, this is an inviting book.

Scott's appeal is vested in her concern with universal verities—the fundamental conditions of light and darkness, life and death, permanence and dissolution. These antitheses are mirrored domestically in the rival passions of love and hate ("Meeting" and "New Songs for Mariana"), in the ambiguous possibilities of arrival and departure ("Migrants" and "Return to Tockington"), in the fostering of a sense of heritage and resigned conviction of alienation ("A legacy" and "Fruits of exils"). The tensions are most poignantly realised when the poet attempts to defy them, either by holding steadfastly onto transient stability in the form of love and heritage ("Proteus" or "Christmas trees") or by reaching across nature's innate barriers to touch intangible mystery ("Shelly Beach", "The Dolphins" or "Southern Ocean"). The theme of reconciliation emerges as integral to Scott's poetic vision.

"Southern Ocean", the last poem, resonates significantly in this context. Comprised of three choruses featuring male and female voices, it symbolically rehearses the theme of reconciliation at the dawn of the new millenium. Reconciliation of black and white Australians is the poem's first cause for celebration:

Here in the south of the South Land, Australia Felix,
a town's grown up on the site of ancient dreams.
Yet few of its first settlers could make that inner crossing
to the core of the land or sea or their native peoples.
         ...       Slowly the townsfolk learn the shape
of loss in another lifetime.

Reconciliation of the early settlers to their own pasts—a convict heritage, Aboriginal blood—is the second cause. Reconciliation of people from all cultural backgrounds, hard-won because "two wars in a life-time bear hard on the little places", constitute the third. While the tenor of the poem is quietly political, its ultimate cause entails liberation of the imagination. In this respect, "Southern Ocean" reiterates an insistent claim of The Black Swans—that miraculous transformations are enabled by the vision of "the inner eye".

The vision of Scott's poetry is fundamentally concerted. For example, "The house of a self-made man", in Tricks of Memory, anticipates "At the orchardist's house" in "Renovations". The poet's need to understand the past informs both poems. Only so much may be surmised of James Burnett from the house he built: "time and our hands erase/the last misleading clues in endless theft". Similarly, what's dug up in the orchardist's garden "signif[ies] only presence, the edges of lives". But whereas in the early poem, time and the poet appear to be in cahoots, the "shadowy wolves" descending upon the clearing represented by the orchardist's house menace the poet. Inevitably, all things lose their point "like out-dated jokes". Cyclicality is part of the human condition. This point is also made in the "Housework" series, in particular in "Making redcurrant jelly", "Polishing the step" and "Doing the washing". The series, however, accomplishes so much more. Strikingly original, it translates the rituals of domesticity into art. In its representation of gender and celebration of women and the "knowledge that goes beyond them", it is feminist and confessional. "Housework" too illustrates the literary allusiveness and associative habit of thought that account for the continually surprising effects of Scott's poetry. "Dusting", which sustains the "Housework" theme, depends upon a characteristic reversal of expectation. Dusting, the poet prosaically points out, usually "denote[s] putting stuff on things, not wiping it off". A diversion is created to deliver the serious reflection—"dust we are and to dust we shall return"—before the poem escalates into whimsy. Throughout, Scott's witty intelligence promises the reader's apprehension of "mirrors and secret doorways that open on new dimensions" ("Walking to Cape Raoul").

Appealing too is the poetry's candour. There are autobiographical poems—notably "After their kind", which initiates the new novel Family Album, and the poignant "Elegies—M.F.C.S    1929-1984"—but a discrete confessionalism is also evident. Numerous poems deal with the Tasman Peninsula, acknowledged to be an obsession. David Malouf has commented that "everything one writes tells you something about the writer...about the quality of mind of the writer."1 The unique perspective of Scott's Collected Poems is one that readers will be interested to share.

1   David Malouf, "12 Edmonstone Street", in Writers in Action: The Writer's Choice Evenings, ed. Gerry Turcotte (Sydney: Currency Press, 1990), pp. 48-49