Crow College: New and Selected Poems
Melbourne poet Emma Lew writes that her poetic practice was profoundly influenced by an experience at an exhibition of American Pop Art. Standing in front of a quiet painting of a building, she suddenly noticed that flames and smoke were pouring from a far wing and was confronted by a feeling of 'being violently reawakened'. This 'instant of tremendous surprise and disorientation, at once disturbing and thrilling', appears to continue to provide inspiration to her own personal poetic project.[i]
The disconcerting, the uncanny, and the existentially threatening are all given voice in Lew’s new and selected works entitled Crow College, published this year by Giramondo. The book includes selected poems from Lew’s two previous collections, The Wild Reply (Black Pepper Publishing, 1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (Giramondo 2002), as well as a selection of new poems. Read at a time when the country burns in a premature and devastating fire season, Crow College offers an education in what Gaston Bachelard called 'inflamed discourse' – a poetic register of language that reaches beyond the psychological, and that burns through thought on a mission towards dynamism.[ii] In the exquisitely formal poems in this selection, the human personality is recalled to the burning intensity of its more-than-human roots; as in the poem ‘Afterlife’, the final command is: 'Just fire, no words!' (5)
This doesn’t mean, however, that Lew is passionless about the voice. These poems are a suite of painfully vibrant dramatic miniatures. Many of the characters are women, squirming but surviving through cunning strategies of stealth, seduction, observation, murder, and repentance, as in ‘Far from the Pearly Shell’:
When a woman wishes to be cruel,
she is more cruel. […]
Such is the clarity of her rare destiny,
that she wakes at dawn and boards a train,
to come south.
Imagine someone dangerous and diseased;
silent, despite dark clothing.
Lew relishes her poetic role as commander of the sinister. The stable structures of the human-designed – relationships, architecture, religion, sums of wealth – are reformed on a gothic bent towards death, as in ‘Sinking Song’:
In the wonderful phrasing of this evening,
fire runs along us as a man.
All vanished animals weep,
and cities, built merely to fall,
drown in birds.
However, as in the aesthetics of American Pop Art, there is also jostling room here for the delicious, the camp, the seductive, the theatrical, and the subversive. Imagery of a phantasmic Eurasia amplifies a kind of Baudelairean sensibility, nineteenth-century in its obsession with death, decadence and decay. Lew’s poems recall this damp ennui too, what Baudelaire calls 'the place where the salt has lost its savour',[iii] but somehow animates it with life. There is an exquisiteness to the way Lew rides the tension and attraction between the humanly beautiful and brute nature, something tender and terrible about the equivalence of flesh and the natural aggression of survival. In ‘Passage’, even the unattainable is stirringly beautiful:
In the digging-down perfection of night
No animal seems like the wind
The human hardness of a jewel
The shine and shadow of the skin
Blind echoes of us in stone
When will I hold all of this in my hands?
Likewise there is a vitality in the mire of these poems and the scenes of Russian winters of centuries ago, a sharp, deadly, enlivening texture to rub against. Most of all, there are the dizzying contradictions of the surreal and the non sequitur, treated in a way that deeply satisfies. In ‘Trench Music’, these elements meet with explosive results when an 'old heaven', near 'delicate Stalingrad', stirs:
I cannot evade these forms in the bone,
the slow tunes from oblivion.
I fill up with shooting stars:
let my human half sing out.
Crow College is a showcase for a breadth of formal experimentation spanning Lew’s career, from prose poems, to villanelles and sophisticated and experimental pantoums (Lew’s favourite). The formal elements of this poetry are never overreaching, but always deepen their own game. The new poems – ‘Lesson’, ‘Sugared Path’ and ‘Precursors’, in particular – bring a different but recognisable energy, displaying a kind of impatience with the formal restraints and offering a more contemporary, real-time liveliness to the old-fashioned tonality of her earlier poems. From ‘Poker for Money’:
See? I could smother
you right now…and then
I let you go. I’m gunpowder,
beginning in shreds with
some boys in
to stay afloat. Just like
that (snap of the fingers)
I’m gone again, with
the keys to the kingdom.
These poems accomplish so much, with such strength of imagination – they’re somehow restrained and excessive at once. Crow College is a great, disconcerting, burning pleasure.
[i] Emma Lew, ‘Working Note’, HOW2: New Writing, vol. 1, no. 5 (March 2001).
[ii] Gaston Bachelard, Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, ed. Suzanne Bachelard, trans. Kenneth Haltman (Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1990), 11.
[iii] Charles Baudelaire, ‘Spleen: I am like the King of a Rainy Country’, trans. James McColley Eilers, inTranslation: The Brooklyn Rail (April, 2010).
Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2019. ISBN 9781925818055