Closing Earl Livings’s latest book of poems, Libation, felt like folding up a precious letter: one that revealed a master’s erudite understanding of life, the universe and everything with insight, intelligence and compassion.
Libation, defined as ‘a drink poured out in offering to a god’, is an appropriate title for this collection of poems whose lines pour out with a fluidity of thought and a clarity of words dedicated to the sacredness of existence.
While the poet pronounces his atheism in the title poem, ‘Libation’, he pays homage to a mysterious spirituality which seems nourishing to his life and an inspiration to his writing, a:
Presence that encourages And deserves honour, some chance For alliance – planet, self
Livings writes of spirituality as, not just personal, but as an essence that exists in the collective unconscious so that he is able to describe ancient religious rituals and sacrificial practices as if they are memorable experiences stored in his body.
The title poem, ‘Libation’, is a toast and a reflection of the poet’s inheritance and life-to-date in 4 stanzas. These stanzas are like stepping stones where one jumps from memories of childhood to ‘this full-moon night’, from the reasonings of his ancient ancestors to the inventions of contemporary humans, from forest to seashore and beyond.
The tone and technique displayed in the title poem is typical of Livings’s poetry: free form stanzas with shortish lines, each standing out as a revelatory thought or an instruction, building one on top of the other until the narrative is spent or a crescendo is reached and the tension dissolves.
Poetic devices include smatterings of true and slant rhymes, alliteration, inventive verbs and compound nouns. They are deployed with such subtly and skill that stanzas are held together without strain. Repetition is used to great effect, sometimes to pattern whole poems, such as the stand-out recurrence of ‘Like water’ in ‘Above, Below’ (57).
Livings’s use of juxtaposition throughout the collection is a masterly portrayal of the paradoxes of life. For example, in the poem, ‘Libation’, we read of ‘common streets, holy sites’, ‘chaos designs’ and an ‘unplucked string resonating’ (10). In the evocative poem, ‘Design: Mt Ngungun’, there are ‘fellow trampers of solitude’. This poem also juxtaposes the physical difficulty of a climb with the reward of ‘the wonder of signs’
… space enough to wait … still questing for presence And essence, mine or some other elemental other, Emblem of the ultimate, evidence of homecoming –
While the reader can delve into this collection at any point – indeed the titles and first lines of all the poems provide inviting and easy entries – the sequence of the poems has a certain rationale. The collection begins with poems recalling childhood wonder followed by adolescent questioning, particularly about the nature of the universe, and, after the attainment of formal astronomical knowledge, a poetic exploration of the vast materiality and emptiness of space.
The next grouping of poems deals with earthly concerns, particularly death – the violent death of a young acquaintance, a eulogy to Keats, and the ageing and death of a parent. The subject matter then shifts from personal history to ancient history.
Livings’s personhood is expressed boldly when writing about ancient human civilisations and generations of men thrusting themselves forward to the present. These poems embody physical strength, sometimes brutality, sometimes lust, sometimes the quickness of involuntary muscle-twitch. However, the poet also reveals a feminine sensibility and a joy in the ‘other’s joy’ of sexual intimacy. Of note are the poems ‘Alien Dispatch’ and ‘Dream Bird’ which I like to think are acknowledgements of a struggle (sometimes a dark one) with the poet’s feminine side or, possibly, a female muse. ‘Alien Dispatch’ opens with ‘I’m not supposed to know your name’ and finishes ‘Write soon’. (18, 20)
And then Livings writes of entering into the ecological realm. In ‘Climbing the Tree’ the reader is taken to:
… notice the way your back eases Into the veins of bark as you regard the span Of leaf, of branch and their embracing gaps, Knowing one day you will never leave here.
and in ‘Kondalilla Falls’ invited to:
... Feel if you can Through the soles of your feet the thrumming Of this quickening water, the mountain quivering.
The poet also welcomes the intrusion of natural phenomena into his domain. In ‘Summer Adepts’ it is ‘a bevy of rainbow lorikeets’ that ‘chatter like children at a birthday party’ and in ‘Little Wattlebird’ he waits for the bird that ‘broadcasts’ its arrival:
The soft throaty Yekkop yekkop, That shnairt! of alarm
In ‘Tawny Frogmouth’, the house-trapped bird ‘shudder-drops’. ‘We coo and shoo.’ (15)
Livings’s ability to bring sound-beyond-words into his poems is extraordinary; even silence, which is often present in the poems, seems to have a resonance. ‘Music for Nothing’ starts:
Imagine this: the bass note Of the Big Bang dropping deeper
while the final stanza begins:
Now imagine nothing, the final Still note
Livings’s poems come from an all-embracing cosmic viewpoint. The current state of post-modern society is not an explicit theme. He is more interested in exploring the nature of homo sapiens as an explanation of how we have ended up here.
In ‘Letter to William Blake’ he writes:
Two hundred years on And we’re still not listening
The poems are evidence that Livings is a seeker who, like Blake, ‘glimpses’
The opening to Eden inside A flower
and one who identifies with his hunting ancestors when he writes:
Never the day ending without bowed awe
 Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary 5th edition OUP, 2011.
Earl Livings, Libation. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2018 ISBN: 9781760416157