Yve Louis’s latest collection, A Door in the Forest (Blue Tongue
Press, 2012) is astonishingly good. I was impressed with her writing
in journals and anthologies even before her first collection appeared:
it was mature and elegant, displaying a confidence that when I met
her at length, Yve would, in a manner I have come to think of as
characteristic, deprecate. Her collections have further established
her, in my mind and others’, as one of Australia’s most interesting
contemporary poets. Silver from Black (Friendly Street & Wakefield,
1995), Lilith’s Mirror (Kardoorair, 1999), Voyagers (Five Islands, 2002),
The Yellow Dress (Five Islands, 2005) and Notown (Blue Tongue Press,
2009) have consistently revealed her poetry’s profound cultural roots
and reverence for humane values. It wears its familiarity with a vast
range of literature and philosophy lightly. Its maturity of vision
includes a sense that poetry should above all provide for its readers
pleasure that reflects the poet’s in a thing well done. The poetry is
technically impressive; it takes risks with language, rhetorical effects
and structures to produce poems of enviable sophistication, and
beautifully sustained tone. All this is true of A Door in the Forest,
which expands themes present in earlier books and is, I think, even
richer with good things.
History and myth underpin much of this collection. History is present in obvious ways: poems that include biography, literary and art history. It is present in such poems as ‘Women sweeping’, ‘Pattern’, ‘Fame’, ‘Nietzsche to Descartes’, ‘Max Brod to Franz Kafka’, ‘Euripides and the Athenians’, ‘Icon’, ‘Underwater flying’ and ‘Three laments for yellow’ – a poem showing three perspectives of the painter Van Gogh: his brother Theo’s point of view, his own, and his friend Gauguin’s. In similar fashion, Henry Lawson is portrayed in the verbal triptych ‘Underwater flying’.
In a more nuanced and philosophically engaging way, history is present throughout the poetry in the cultural density of words we take for granted, but which Yve foregrounds. She memorably conveys the suggestiveness and open-endedness of words when she resuscitates ancient spellings such as ‘medwyfs’, in a poem on women sweeping thresholds, whose ‘sacred task’ it is to ‘un-spell evil / from the door’, but who are regarded by hate-filled clerics and others as witches to be burned along with their broomsticks. The archaic spelling fits with the long record of persecution of clever women that the poem records and deplores. In such ways, Yve signals her alertness to the weight of words, to show how people name and interpret signs, and sometimes assign extraordinary capacity for agency, for good or ill, to persons and even common objects.
Examples of cruelty are not relegated to distant history; in a terrific poem on fear, Yve writes ‘fear will always make concrete the objects /of its reality’, and she presents us with the example of the way a child called ‘the young poet’ (herself when young, I think) perceived a ‘she-demon’ and ‘vivisectionist’ who formerly tormented her. The child feared rats and dogs ‘those snarling living gargoyles to keep hawkers / and children at bay’, but feared the she-demon more. Told by her mother to turn the other cheek, the young poet resisted and, goaded by a further act of cruelty, learnt the words ‘to howl the rage of dragons’. The turns of phrase, in this poem and others, are enviably original: they show a poet supremely conscious of the possibilities of her medium, and especially the inherent suggestibility of words. In a poem titled ‘Apprentice’, she remarks ‘Story’s secret is “Word”’, and in another, she has Cleopatra ask rhetorically, ‘Who now shall map Egypt’ after Antony is gone: it is her own body and person, ‘mapped’ and grasped by Antony, to which the queen refers. In Shakespeare’s play and Yve’s poem, the queen is an allegory of invaded Egypt. Her reference to herself as Egypt recalls the erotic euphemism inherent in Antony’s remark in Shakespeare’s play, ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying. ’ The poem focuses on the lovers’ bodies in a way that subtly retains the charge of eroticism; the queen declares: ‘Without his touch / my arm is untraced by chill / rising of hair’.
In a sense, A Door in the Forest is all about words and stories. To speak of the forest is to speak of, among other things, an imaginary place, a mirror of the mind, like the world of speech where one chooses or creates a path that may bring happy surprises, or bewilderment, terror, and even death. Finding one’s way in an actual forest or in the virtual forest of language is tricky and fraught. Language has snares, as labels and slogans attached to identity prove, but, good deconstructionist and rhetorical critic, Yve reveals the label-coiners’ underlying agendas.
She also takes familiar stories to show us what we might otherwise see as tales of unreality, or fables that are irrelevant to our times, and she reinvests them with sentiments we can understand, relating to human passions and motives. This is as true of her fables involving a woodcutter’s children, a changeling, or talking animals such as the sparrow or the sea-slug as it is of stories about Cleopatra’s response to Antony’s death, and of Hero’s to the death of her lover Leander; of the Fox maiden and her reflection in a mirror; of Beauty and her Beast; of Laura and Voss; of Henry Lawson’s wife Bertha and his final partner Isobel Byers; of Hansel and Gretel.
The last mentioned (in a poem called ‘Lost’) is particularly impressive: the brothers Grimm are depicted walking along the shore of a lake in autumn, discussing what to do with the lost children of their stories: ‘Jakob grieves: “What have we created here? What innocence destroyed?’ This comes to the heart of every writer’s sense of responsibility for what is created. Wilhelm Grimm replies to his brother ‘It’s not ours to invent, but ours simply to record’. The poem does not end here, but dwells on words that ‘backtrack’ meaning, and those people ‘who write a world, never to find a home’.
In one of the poems carrying the simple title ‘Fable’, a bear is urged to roar its grief at rage rather than provide ‘rap for Coke’; elsewhere, stories recount acts that seem to belong in the realm of the inconceivable, but the acts are too credible: language can be and has been employed to authorise inhumane acts – the ‘holocaust’ of witches; the persecution that led the poet’s father to change his name and country; or the Shoah itself. Words used to demonise others are turned up again like the pebbles she speaks of in the final, title poem.
Like the brothers Grimm, Yve works with the ‘branches and entanglements of story’, the ‘thickets of plot’, and ‘the thousand mouths and tongues of words’. Her respect for language and her experience of adapting language to an audience – as scriptwriter, copywriter, playwright and editor – gives her poetry considerable gravitas. Love of language – and of languages other than English – is evident in her tact, that quality that knows the exact word and phrase for an occasion, and how far to push an association. Examples abound in the collection. In the first of her ‘Grimm’ variations, an abandoned child described as ‘one mouth too many’ is assailed by a Hitchcock-like flock of birds that oppose their ‘million faceted heart’ to the heart of the child. It’s a gothic moment, but one commensurate with what we know of the ways in which unwanted children are treated even now.
Sometimes Yve leads us along until we are confronted with other shocking images we’re unlikely to forget. One such poem, about the business of poetry-making, speaks of ‘the night-hatched poem agitating for flight’ – a lovely conceit. But the poem takes flight in an unexpected and dazzling direction, describing the computerprogram’s language as ones and zeros that represent an ‘ultimate digital cleansing of meaning’. Such a phrase forces us to reflect on how words – any words – can mean something and nothing at the same time, just as people can simultaneously be considered as having significance or none. I find the poem amazing. Like others in this book, the poem also impresses with the carefully plotted shape of lines and stanzas, blocks deployed to provide opposing angles and open up sudden fresh approaches to a topic.
Yve Louis has written a book of highly imaginative poems that transport a reader to places that are strangely familiar. This is a paradox, of course. We’re disoriented by strangeness, by finding ourselves in territory we thought we knew how to handle – whether it’s a path that takes an unexpected turn, or an encounter that shows us an aspect of a person, even ourselves, that could be frightening or exhilarating. This is something that Emily Dickinson knew about: the heights to which a person might aspire, and the ecstasy of attainment – and the self-estrangement and hollowing out that one can also experience. It’s something to celebrate that great poetry can be made out of these moods. Yve Louis looks on estrangement and the familiar, letting her poems reveal both aspects at once – like the fox-woman in the mirror, in one of her most technically brilliant poems: read it and see how the form reflects the interior as well as the exterior person it reveals. You’ll wonder how she did it.
In ‘Euripides and the Athenians’, Yve speaks of the playwrightactor who receives ‘thin coins of applause’ and declares ‘but no one relishes / your thrusts to the heart’. Yve Louis’ poems contain many thrusts to the heart, and I trust she’ll receive more than ‘thin coins’ as her reward.