Review: Carolyn Gerrish's 'dark laughter' (2004) and Andrew Lansdown's 'fontanelle' (2005)

Among books to have appeared in recent months are collections by Carolyn Gerrish (dark laughter, Island Press, 2004) and Andrew Lansdown (fontanelle, Five Islands Press, February 2005).

At first glance, dark laughter appears an eclectic mix. Gerrish references long-dead philosophers (Plato, Heidegger, Holderlin), classical musicians (Schubert, Handel, Schumann, Rossini), movie stars (Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep) et al. Her poetry reveals, among other things, a penchant for political analogy....

With Apologies

Cheryl Kernot
"the woman most likely" -
smiles from the window
of the second-hand bookshop

Yet the heart of this collection lies not with eclecticism but with its emotional landscape. Focussing on big-picture concerns - the effect on the individual of desire, of loss - Gerrish seeks to make sense of a life. Answers may not be readily forthcoming [why is it that situations we think we've healed are still there?/ Why is it we keep losing things which should never be lost?], responses may be neither wise nor considered, but that's simply the process and flush of discovery.

could you lose your obsessions? your dearest perverse loves
you talk about them endlessly
now that door's closed

                                  (from 'Obsessions', pg 15)

Relinquishment of control is a recurring theme in Gerrish's poems; not the forsaking of a formal or technical control, but a loosening grip over events. [but you've lost the narrative thread of your life]. Equally evident is the urge to return to a sense of equilibrium. Soren Kierkegaard in his diaries likens the traipse back to the mainstream, to the heart, as a journey through a burnt and blackened landscape; and in similar vein the persona of Gerrish's poems charts her bearings by retracing her steps through places 'unfit for habitation'.

I am living a life I have no right to live
one day you took directions from the wrong person
to a place unfit for habitation you've accomplished
the voyage out but no vessel arrives to take you back

Lansdown's fontanelle isn't written with the same pitch of intensity as dark laughter. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, merely indicative of a differing approach. There's a contemplative quality to the poems in fontanelle, an essentiality Geoff Page refers to as the 'thisness of Lansdown's poetry'.

What does it mean, that
buff-bellied thornbill,
rejoicing in the steady rain
from the dark sky? What?

                                  (from 'Dark Sky', pg 11)

Lansdown writes of a private rather than public world, an inner landscape detailing the minutiae of daily routine ... the dealings with wife, family and friends, the poet's delight (and focus of a number of poems in the book) in his young son's early years of development:


He waves now without being told.
But what sense does he make of it,
my small son, when he sees me
drive daily out of his life? I blow
the horn, flash the lights and go.

What does he think? Does he feel it
as a desertion? A bewilderment?
Last night in my absence he told
his mother before going to sleep,
"Daddy gone broom broom beep beep!"

To contrast Gerrish's urgency with Lansdown's meditative quality is to illustrate the difference between the two. Gerrish is the diver in search of precious pearls, content to surrender to the experience (if it's within reason) of whatever lies around the corner. (& you're mourning that loss of intensity/ the wave that carries you wherever it wants). Lansdown's the lapidarist, shaping and polishing his lustrous gems and seeking to extract the utmost from his material. Note the aesthetic focus of his concern with beauty.

It is nothing flash, the pale blue plastic jug
on my desk. But how beautifully it holds
those two loose-petalled pastel-pink roses and
that cluster of blazing-red pollen-lit gum blossom.
How it brightens my room, my mood, as I write,
reminding me of the things I am closeted from,
of that gungurru dropping its slender branches
over a wall by the footpath I walked this morning.

                                  (from 'Blue Jug')

Lansdown manages this with objects, but pays little attention to the physical or charismatic charm of individuals, although - it is true - it's implicit within the poem 'Home':

And later tonight, before we join
the children in that no-place
of sleep, she might embrace me.
Or she might not. Either way
is fine. Tomorrow will be different.
Only her constancy is constant.
Two decades ago she vowed,
"With my body, my heart, my will,
I will." And truly she has, does.
Amazing! My wife. She's the one,
she's the one I'm going home to now.
Home. The place she makes
by being there. The place
that resolves the question, "Who,
who in this life will love me?"

                                  (from 'Home')

The subjects of Gerrish's poems don't have the luxury of Lansdown's cushion of comfort. Lansdown's 'Who in this life will love me?' is much the same question Gerrish poses, but her answers aren't found in domesticity. When Gerrish writes of beauty, she refers more often than not to personal and physical charm as a veneer - one which hints at promise but that is ultimately flawed.

The very fact that the soprano lives. Is a kind of
perfection. And if you died listening to her. It would be an
ecstatic death. But is beauty the antithesis of truth? That it
can only be tolerated or appreciated. When dressed up in
its best clothes. In front of an adoring audience.

And what of the singer's real life? Has she charmed
the universe? So her life is chaos-proof? Has she never
had a headache? Been constipated. Never lost her
keys. Missed a plane. Worn the wrong clothes.
Or loved the wrong person.

Personal relationships intrude on Gerrish's appraisals of beauty, and there's a residue of pain involved. She writes less than Lansdown about the intimacy of family bonds, and more about relationships that though rough-edged are plainly workable, plainly rewarding; some too that are plainly unworkable.

remember how she changed her number never
answered your calls (you wonder at the ease
that a person can dispense with the past by
the use of technology)

                                  (from 'Mountain High')

Gerrish exhibits a hard-earned wariness, an unwillingness - with relationships particularly - to repeat the mistakes of the past. In some passages, the experiences she describes are grubby and sordid or just plain appalling (you asked him where his wife was. 'Passed away' he/ sighed. later they told you he'd hacked her to death: 'Performance Unreliable'), and (her partner -/ huddled outside/ dying of AIDS: 'Gaol Poem'); and (some women can never be mothers because of the wounds/ of their mothers: from 'Performance Unreliable') - experience enough to send some to seek the comfort of religion.

But not Gerrish. Not overtly so, anyhow, not in these poems - which is not to deny a spiritual dimension to her work. I’m reminded of an interview some years ago with poet Chris Mansell seeking her attitude towards questions of faith. Mansell replied she was at a loss to understand what other people meant by spirituality - 'I don't consciously strive for a spiritual sort of approach, because I think for myself I can't divide things up like that.' – and there's a hint of this approach in Gerrish's writing, a sense of faith, hope and despair being implicit rather than objectified. Certainly she voices the hope of escape from the cruel, the mundane - i want to live in a world where everyone sings Schubert/ lieder & the voices go on & on to the glory of god or/ goddess (from 'Performance Unreliable') - but nowhere is the notion of faith as pronounced as it is in Lansdown's work, as - for example - in the following poem:


Yesterday, when I woke early
with that pain and got up and got
no relief, I thought of death,
my death. This is it, I thought.

And I felt grief for my family
and friends. My two young sons
especially - fatherless in their
formative years. But mostly

I felt shame, an overwhelming
shame that I would soon meet
my Saviour with so little to give
in thanks. Inexcusably little

Today the pain has gone, but
not the shame. Oh, dear Jesus!

Two books with different approaches; both enjoyable reading experiences for their introspection, honesty - and humour.

your taxman (who's in love with Elvis)
today he's unusually tetchy he's lost a file complains
everyone's come too early you tell him royalties for
your third poetry book amounts to $91.20

- My - he says - You have become a woman of means -

                                  (from Gerrish's '412 to Campsie')