Green Point Bearings
Trying to define ‘poetry’ is a mug’s game. To cast your definition wide enough to encompass all ‘poetries’ is to leave holes big enough for anything and everything to swim through. Tighten the net too rigorously and next-to-everything is excluded. Yet we do need something approaching a definition so as to have some idea of what we are talking about. To this end I am thinking about Samuel Johnson’s not-at-all technical suggestion that ‘poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with beauty by calling imagination to the help of reason’. I am attracted to this definition because of its linking of beauty and pleasure (however those slippery and contested terms might be defined), and because it denies the false dichotomy between imagination/emotion and intellect that sometimes, and still, bedevils poetry. I like poetry which can think as well as feel.
This definition/description of poetry occurred to me while I was reading Kathryn Fry’s debut collection, Green Point Bearings. To be strictly honest I thought of Samuel Johnson’s words while reading the poems that went on to be included in Green Point Bearings in the course of an ASA mentorship that I conducted with Kathryn during the course of 2017. Kathryn Fry’s poetry thinks and feels and it is beautiful. It is a source of pleasure.
Green Point Bearings is an unpretentious, self-transcending collection, yet it is also strong and assured. The poems are about people, places and events, solid, genuine things, and they are straight-forward but far from simple-minded. Meanings are not ‘difficult’ or, in any sense, obscure. The poems are characterised by precision and lucidity but they are also delicate, subtle, and layers of meaning and affect creep up on you in the sure rhythms and images, and in the turn of the lines. The mood and implications of the poems are felt before they are fully appreciated. The poems amply confirm T. S. Eliot’s observation that poetry can communicate through the ‘musical impression[s] upon the sensibility’ and, thus, can be apprehended before it is understood. These are poems which grow and deepen, they appear to be the meditative products of a life lived alertly, appreciatively, intelligently.
It is possible almost to see the way the poems work in just the title of this book. ‘Green Point’ denotes a specific place, and specificity and accuracy are hallmarks of the poetry. Yet the book ranges widely in both place and ideas. ‘Bearings’ is even more suggestive. To ‘take one’s bearings’ is to plot a position in order to determine a direction, it is to take stock. ‘To bear’ is both to bring forth and to endure. All these connotations resonate through the collection.
The book is in five sections and the first of these, ‘Going One Way’, is principally concerned with the description and celebration of the local area encompassing approximately the northern section of the Sydney basin. Of course, they are not just descriptions as can be gleaned from the first, understated and controlled poem, ‘Ferry to Bobbin Head’:
History is fallingfrom Barrenjoey, whispering from the bays of Refuge, Flint and Steel, and the smooth lips of their beaches: Hungry, Resolute and Eleanor.
We’re enclosed by contoursof memory in the sandstone carved to cliff and cave, in the hill-folds’ slow tumble to the stone-edged water, and that tree, a bonsai on rock.
West Head sits in shadow and latelight as we ferry the Hawkesbury swell. And I recall when we first set course on our voyage together, and ever since, the crests and the calm.
Here is a first taste of Fry’s interest in place, history and memory, and the way the immediate can provoke a wider, more abstract thought; a tantalising introduction to her descriptive powers – think about the music and imagery, the play of the rounded and sharp in ‘We’re enclosed by contours / of memory in the sandstone carved to cliff and cave, / in the hill-folds slow tumble to the stone-edged water’; and her restrained, light touch in the reference to the one who shares the journey, the bigger journey, with her. It is a convincing piece of work. Here, and throughout the collection, readers will appreciate the accuracy, scientific accuracy, of Kathryn’s descriptions of nature and landscape, of trees and flowers and birds which are, nonetheless, always composed with an ear to the way they sound and an eye to the images they create. This first poem does set the collection’s bearings.
The second section is called ‘Histories’ and here the scope of the book widens dramatically. The poems are attentive to the history of the ancient land of Australia, principally with the knowledge and insights of the Aboriginal custodians of the land but also with the contributions of the explorers, naturalists and artists who opened white eyes to an appreciation of the land, who helped us find our bearings. These poems are written with respect and tact and an acknowledgement and appreciation of the primacy of the Aboriginal people. Here are just the first two stanzas of ‘Water Myths’:
Women on plastic chairs shift in the sand as the scientist lifts the box to their table. Mungo Lady brought back, safe in country; a breeze rustles her spirit home. They spread her cracked, charred bones on the velvet lining and cry the same tears of forty thousand years before – and this, the first cremation for our world to know.
The third section, ‘Art Talk’ concentrates mainly on visual art. There is, of course, a long tradition of poems about painting stretching back, perhaps, to Simonides who is supposed to have said, ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting which speaks.’ It is an agreeable subject for Fry who brings all her ability to render the visual beauty of nature in words to the task of translating the visual medium of art into the ‘meaning medium’ of words.
For example, the poem ‘Chinese Pots and Lemons (1982)’ begins with a self-deprecating quotation from the artist Margaret Olley – ‘Flowers in a vase and fruit: that’s all there is to them.’ Fry deftly undermines this statement by showing just how much more there is, while all the time denying that she, Fry, has any knowledge of how an artist might think. Here are the last two stanzas which each hang off the phrase ‘I cannot know’:
How she placed. How she brushed russet, umber and a little sienna into the effort of bench, background and woven wicker, and what was not. How she spaced curve and lip, belly and thin handle, ridge, neck and sure base, gold-hip and glaze, lemon-leaf, wisp and flowers, ripe before the fall.
Just listen to the sound of ‘gold-hip and glaze, lemon-leaf / wisp and flowers’, and think about the final phrase, ‘ripe before the fall’ – how much more are these than description, though the description is very good indeed.
The fourth section, ‘Greater Than the Sum’ is in itself, and unintended I think, a good description of the way poetry works. The way surface is only surface and all the work is going on somewhere else but still depends on the surface. Many of the poems in this section are moving, personal, family poems about memory and the past. They are often about loss and suffering, but no less beautiful (and pleasurable) for that. Here is just a little bit from the third part of ‘Motherlode’:
Hers were Tiffany’s dreams at breakfast, a catwalk on Fifth Avenue, the fall of crepe, the cut of linen, always the choice of colour. She’d be the purple crowned lorikeet, flighty bright as every crayon in the pack, chalking up the crimson of these flashy myrtle flowers. But give her strelitzia’s gold or gerberas, bowls of pink magnolias, camellias large as plates. Alone in those final years, she broke bread for the butcherbird at her kitchen window. 'A long time gone,' you said. But I find you in my sister’s voice, my thinning hands and now even where you’ve never been.
This is lovely, and loving.
‘Here’, the final section, returns us to place, to ‘here’, perhaps the Lake Macquarie / Newcastle area and, by implication, to ‘now’. It is a nice movement coming out of the previous section and, to me, a neat bookend to the opening ‘Green Point Bearings’ section. These are love poems. Delicate, restrained, thoughtful love poems for special people and for nature. They are an apt way to finish a book about finding one’s bearings. Here are the endings of, first, ‘On Meeting a Colony’ and then ‘Solstice’: ‘My mind eases / out of itself // to drift with the billowing / tremulous white’ (80) and ‘And all the cells of my being align, / as if from the pull of a magnet / they start to sway and shimmer’ (81). I am thinking here of the almost evanescent movement suggested and of the implications of ‘align’ and ‘magnet’, and of the interplay between these two contrasting sets of images. It is moments like these that gently surprise a reader. To my mind, this book has certainly found its bearings.
Kathryn Fry, Green Point Bearings. Port Adelaide, South Australia: Ginninderra Press, 2018. ISBN:9781760415129
This review is a revised version of Brook Emery’s launch speech for Green Point Bearings by Kathryn Fry