FR37: Jun 2008


Walleah Press


Famous Reporter



Navigation by Judy Johnson

Five Islands Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7340-3756-5

In Judy Johnson’s fourth book, Navigation, she continues some of her exploration of both history and the narrative that was evident in her earlier award-winning historical verse-novel, Jack.

It’s not a new tradition in Australian poetry. In one of the periodic cultural re-awakenings, in this case in the late 1950s and early 1960s, poets like James McAuley, Francis Webb and others took on the great historical stories of Australia’s exploration and discovery.

What is new is the re-emergence of this narrative thread in Australian poetry in the last few years, led largely by women such as Dorothy Porter, who have consciously tried to re-capture for poetry that readership it once attracted and which has slid to prose; the joy of the story. The impulse has been apparent too in the work of poets like Jordie Albiston (Botany Bay Document), and more recently Diane Fahey whose latest book, The Mystery of Rosa Morland, is a detective fiction poem set on a train travelling to Edinburgh in 1900. And the influence continues. A little while ago I attended the launch of a first book by a new young Melbourne poet, Brigitte Lewis, whose lesbian narrative, Rubbing Mirrors, is inspired by Porter’s work. There’s something happening here.

Judy Johnson has been part of this recent push, but that’s not to say that this new book is one poem, or entirely set in the past. Far from it. The book is in four sections: ‘Ties’, a series of short, intensely powerful poems and, to my mind, among the strongest things here, ‘Whale’, the strongest contender for history poems here, ‘Reason’, a series of poems including the narrative-esque ‘The Last Tuniit’ and ‘Evanescence’, a series of beautiful, intense poems of the personal past.

Johnson comes across in the book as an ambitious and dexterous poet, brimming with ideas which can hardly be contained. It’s a rich and various book. If there’s a criticism I have of this book it’s related to that diversity, in that I found it a little difficult to find the centre of it all, or something like the true voice, if indeed that’s the quest. The book is diverse and moves from the past to the present and back again fluently and is as comfortable with the story as the lyrical moment.

I enjoyed the first section of the book a lot. ‘Ties’ is a loosely linked collection of poems of ‘blood and smoke and flame’, to quote the epigraph from Houseman that opens the section. Certainly, the blood is here, both in the connections of family and the loss and death that is also strongly through this section in poems about the death of her father, or a friend with cancer, worlds where the everyday is all suddenly hostile, ‘As if the sun is throwing knives’.

In ‘Paper Dolls’ from this section, a young girl plays with her paper dolls while her parents argue in the other room, there’s the dramatic tensions between the surface and the interior that reminded me a little of Margaret Atwood’s writing about childhood and even in this short piece there’s control of the narrative too:

I hear the front door slam, my mother crying in the next room.

Knowing it’s not really true, I whisper to Una:
          I hate my father and I love my mother.

     I push hard on the perforations.
          She comes away in two pieces.

Johnson has a facility with such endings; they twist away from the expected, often in a short, indented, dark alternative.

These variations of death and parting are themes that Johnson returns to in the final section ‘Evanescence’. Indeed, these sections mirror each other to a degree and book-end the selection. These are poems of childhood and play that have always a shadow behind them. ‘Between the lines’ moves from the ‘musk-stick pink’ happiness of ‘colouring in’ to that sudden halting shift again:

The hand stills on the paper.
The dead, she says, are always green.

Malachite and verdigris, olive,
leaf and chlorophyll.

The dead, she says,
                              don’t stay between the lines.

Of the longer things that are at the centre of the collection, I most enjoyed the exuberant ode of praise that is ‘Whale Songs’ which first appeared in Famous Reporter 35:

Praise the soft and shadow filter that masks us
as we glide under atmospheric radar

Praise as pulsing wet we stretch the rubbered light
over our triton backs …

This is Johnson as celebratory poet, navigator of the overflowing world. An earlier poem opens ‘You ask me to decipher its meaning’ and Johnson is at this again in ‘Whale Songs’. It’s no accident that the penultimate poem in the collection is called ‘Things to be Grateful For’. This gratitude at the apparently ordinary objects of the world is also evident in ‘Three Tool’s', Johnson’s Neruda-like ‘odes’ to ‘Hammers’, ‘Rakes’ and a ‘Saw’ which opens with the whimsical, ‘Something is falling in the forest’. Indeed, Johnson makes her debt to Neruda obvious in the very next poem.

I wasn’t as convinced by ‘A Whaler’s Wife at Sea’, a poem in five sections based around Ellen Scott’s 1886 whaling journey with her husband, but that might have been more to do with my doubts about the narrative ‘voice’ than the poems themselves which seem scrupulous about their authentic detail.

When Geoff Page reviewed one of Johnson’s early books on the ABC he wrote, ‘It’s difficult to find a single poem in Judy Johnson’s first full length collection … that one would consider typical’. His comment points to the diversity and breadth of her concerns. Here, it’s easy to be seduced by the narratives at the centre but it seems to me the real strength of the book is the poignant personal moments of great depth that open and close this collection. Johnson’s fittingly nautical imagery of the closing lines of the collection sell the book short:

I know it’s only pretending to swim.

             And it’s only shallow water.

But it’s more than enough to carry our smallness
             all the way to where we’re going

Not so; these aren’t shallow things. At its best, Johnson’s book navigates the deepest and most perilous waters of them all; the intimate layers of the heart.

Warrick Wynne is a Melbourne poet and teacher. His most recent collection of poetry was The State of the Rivers and Streams (Five Islands Press). His web site is http://warrickwynne.org/