FR38: Dec 2008


Walleah Press


Famous Reporter



      BARRY HILL, As We Draw Ourselves

5 Islands Press, 2008.

In his latest collection of poems, As We Draw Ourselves, Barry Hill presents his poetic exploration of painting and the nexus between poetry and painting in this series of elegant and finely-crafted verses. In fact, he does rather more than that, offering us also a subtle examination of the effect of place on both forms of art, influenced by his own recent sojourns in Italy and Japan. The poems in this book are grouped into three sections, clearly separate in some respects, but equally clearly linked by their commitment to the common theme.

The first section begins with a short series of verses stimulated by the recent ‘Fantastic Mountains’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In response to these ancient paintings – scenes from Mount Hua by the Chinese doctor and ‘amateur’ painter, Wang Lu who climbed the sacred mountain in 1381 – Hill has penned six verses each with its own striking visual component in the Chinese character of the title. The modern poet imagines the painter, in the distant past, advancing in his ascent, both physical and spiritual, and encountering in turn the features of the mountain scenery; valley, lake, path, waterfall, cliffs and peak, until, at the end of his climb,

Between life and death
                       at the beginning
                       and at the end
the warrior arrives to needle himself

Then follow the modern poet’s musings on his own endeavours at drawing – but the other rather than the self. Valuable advice from a ‘master artist’ is acknowledged just as the quintessential painter-poet Wang Wei, acknowledged in Hill’s poem, may have aided his countryman, albeit at a remove of several centuries. The poet’s thoughts now turn to other painters. First to the northern hemisphere, and two painters, almost exact contemporaries, but quite contrasting in subject matter and style. In a series of short verses, Hill captures perfectly the Intimiste detail of Pierre Bonnard,

She turns towards you
with her hands there
poised at her breasts
left hand gentle with the right
her nakedness to be aided
by the waiting winter light

Then, in a single poem, he hints at the suffering portrayed by Käthe Kollwitz, before moving on to two other artists who, in their different ways, attempted to come to grips with the harsher light and colours of the Australian landscape – Rover Thomas Joolama and Sidney Nolan. The section ends with the symmetry of three poems on place, balancing the opening poems on the pictorial record of the fourteenth century Chinese painter’s mountain ascent.

Italy is the theme of the second section and, within Hill’s poems on this particular place, Michelangelo is the dominant figure. ‘Drawing ourselves’ is now extended to the plastic arts, and not only to the finished work – there is also the material from which the work is fashioned. The long poem on Carrara powerfully captures the poet’s complex response to sublime artistry while mixing in details, quotidian and trivial, of his own visit, of acquiring souvenirs. The solidity and substance of the mountain of stone, the raw material of the Italian master’s work, offers a striking contrast to the Daoist ethereality of the scenery of the sacred Chinese mountain, the inspiration for the Chinese painter. One poem in this section which particularly links the several arts by which we depict ourselves (and others) is titled ‘Poems at Sea’, and reads in part,

The poems he wrote were constellations of stone
up against each other, some slipping, others
trying to break free, some in the wrong order
defying la bella figura. And still he pushed them
into densities of little songs, or madrigals
sometimes with rima baciata, pebbly endings that kissed.
As I read, reread them, they feel like clay
and my own tongue slips and slides in its efforts
to speak well – accurately – of him, his shapes
his shaping hand, arm, shoulders, soul and his own torso
strong as an ox embodying a perfect full stop.
Alas, if paintings are silent poems
these lines are louts. If sculpture is opera
they slink along cobbled lanes.

The section concludes with a poem on another poet deeply influenced by Italy – Ezra Pound.

The third section is called ‘Landings’ – and there are two. The first is a homecoming, perhaps from a journey of some duration. The poems chronicle the chance such a return provides to plunge again into what is most familiar and most loved. Into the ocean, cleansing and bracing, into the simple domestic pleasures of home and garden, the latter with its familiar inhabitants, and into reunion with a loved wife – all this signalling a return to a deeper reality and calling to mind the earlier poems on Bonnard,

We heard the parrot
in the bristly tree beside our house.
Leaning on the spade
you named its green call.
Earlier that morning
feeling like raggedy bark
I stepped into the shower
washing parts of myself with you.
For too long words have been
relentless in their sucking
of my blood. I seem to yearn
for a re-rooting of myself.

The second landing comes at the end of an outward journey, this time to Japan, and is recorded in a ten-poem sequence which I found, together with the opening verses on Wang Lu’s mountain ascent, the most satisfying part of this work. Here the poet, extending his involvment with Buddhism, is moved particularly to reflect on what the rest of his life might hold for him. The sequence opens with a quote from Saigyo,

Shaking the bell
on this mountain, am I loosened from
the world now?
Can I shake myself enough
to know what lies ahead for me?

The poet's response is couched in a tone of humorous resignation which belies the seriousness of the issue,

That broken field of turnips
white and bluish after slaughter –
tops here, half-bodies there.
You walk up towards the tall bamboo
the sun setting cabbages
alight with silver.
What a mess –
the old ground of your thought
wounds and memories
straw brooms of good intentions
the all-too-familiar earth
the same same self.

A more sombre note is, however, sounded in the final poem, ‘Goings and Coming’, which is one of the high points of the whole work and brings the sequence to a fitting conclusion.

All in all, Hill has given us a work of the highest quality. In exploring the central theme of the poetic response to the visual and plastic arts – how we depict ourselves – he explores also a number of related by-ways in a subtle and diverse manner, so creating a poetic sequence of considerable richness. Further, the quality of the poems is ably matched by that of their excellent presentation – 5 Islands Press is to be complimented.

Ian Johnston is the author of Singing of Scented Grass: Verses from the Chinese. His translations were performed at Moorilla during the inaugural Ten Days on the Island festival, and have featured on ABC radio and television, including Arts Today and Compass.