South in the World
Melbourne writer Lisa Jacobson’s South in the World follows from her award-winning verse-novel The Sunlit Zone (which won the 2014 John Bray Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for many other national awards such as the Stella Prize) and is, I suspect, much-anticipated in Australian literary circles.
They say not to judge a book by its cover (or title?), but I was seduced and (having recently returned from a walk on the Overland Track) looked forward to a collection that might take me South and perhaps crack open a window on the experience of southness – life defined or drawn magnetically south, its particular geographies, weather, light, species and politics. As readers we might find that geographical “southness” in the title poem; yet in other parts of the collection this specificity is curiously absent. Jacobson states in her author’s notes that her poems are about: “the struggle to maintain a balance between those southern and northern poles by which we navigate the world: between ordinary living and the desire to transcend it, between earth and sky, body and spirit, descent and ascent, the real and ethereal, the mundane and exotic” (109). So in a sense it is the experience of opposition, or the need for “balance” that the poet seeks to develop. The collection as a whole evokes the desire or need for transcendence, to be more mid-ground, buoyed with life and its demands for our “full attention / as we pedal up the hill” (10).
South in the World is organised into five parts, yet I struggled to pin down the rationale behind the sequencing of poems. The scope of Jacobson’s is broad – mythology underpins many of the earlier poems in the collection. Poems about Angels (flight and earthly groundings) and God, segue into poems about horses, while others recall childhood, explore mother-daughter relationships and the trauma of divorce. There is even a sequence of Holocaust poems, which includes the haunting “Anne Frank’s Sister Falls from Her Bunk”, where readers witness Anne’s sister dragged dead from a room sounding like “water and dark earth” (36). With such a breadth of concerns and thematic concepts, I wondered if the many fine and strong poems included here may have seemed less disparate if organised more coherently, or at least differently.
What does it mean to be “South in the World”? The title comes from Jacobson’s poem of the same name which is about the Black Saturday firestorms that devastated towns such as Kingslake and Marysville in Victoria on Saturday, 7 February 2009 and killed 173 people (26). A recent article titled “Invincible Summer” by Rebecca Giggs (2013) in Southerly spoke of the yet unwritten history of Australia’s cultural responses to fire, and as I write this there are fires burning wildly in the Adelaide hills. Jacobson’s poem “South in the World” is a sequence of eight vignettes that embed this sense of opposition; the narrator is writing of Australian bushfires from a “distant city” and in “air distilled by alpine snow” (from Zurich) (26). As well as the desolation of fires, Giggs (2013) suggests that “Fires are of course, not all ruinous. See the green pick return; seed life germinated in the pyric blast. Far from snapping the tether between us and the landscape, fire – even the potentiality of fire – has the capacity to make us more sensitised to country, and bring us into a moral relationship with it” and it is this highly sensitised awareness that Jacobson evokes. As she writes, “the charcoal forest is greening” yet there are some that will remain “black and dead” (26), thus it is the same for those “who returned to see / the things no one should ever see” (29). The regrowth is our hold on hope, or the loss of it:
The people are the same,
unfurling from the stumps of hearts
or falling backwards into them.
("South in the World" 26)
Throughout the poem there is the spectre of Chagall’s Green Christ, a manifestation of “greening” as environmental resurrection:
The spirit takes flight as nails
sink into skin, the cross dissolves
into leaves, becomes a ring,
a hoop of gold rising above
("South in the World" 26)
Yet Jacobson is wary of simplistic “loss of faith” narratives. Certainly her angels are “no match for fireballs”, but still there is hope in the miraculous emergence of new life –
is it too much to grasp the greening of things
that were black and charred?
("South in the World" 29)
With the final lines, “The body burnt and pierced floats/ ever skyward. Keep your eyes on it” those who remain are charged to observe “it” (29). “It” could certainly refer to the souls of the dead, but my reading is that we are warned against complacency; the potentiality of fire is an ever-present threat that waits to test our resolve; “it” hovers like an ember drifting across Eucalypt stands or, as Giggs (2013) describes, “it” threatens to ignite like Black Saturday reports of “flames [that] took hold mid-air, nourished on oil that had aerolyzed from the eucalyptus trees”.
Horses are a favourite motif of Jacobson’s. A vehicle for earthly flight, they also signify childhood memories and sexuality. Horses are strange, unknown animals to me. I vividly recall Anthony Lawrence’s (2002) poem “In a Limerick Field”, where a horse shakes itself with a sound “like a thick blanket being shaken” and the poet waits for “the dark / geometry of splayed and folded wings”, for the transformation of the animal into myth. So too, do Jacobson’s horses transform. Yet they affect the transformation of people. In the beautiful “On teaching My Daughter to Ride a Horse” the daughter is a “fire-lit child”, as she rides she becomes “another kind of creature; equine and winged” (9). Another, “Girls and Horses in the Fire” narrates the tragedy of two young women who “wreathed by flames and embers”, died trying to save horses in the Black Saturday fires (25). One of my favourite poems “Morning Ride” (75) (also, I discovered in The Best Australian Poems 2014) details a train journey where teenage schoolgirls are portrayed as horses. Everything that’s animal is deliciously “new-glistening” and alive here:
School girls whinny and toss their yellow manes
in half-wild herds on board the morning train.
I'll never be like that again. What’s quick
in them now slows in me, though I recall
their visceral scent, new-glistening, which makes
grown men and school boys shift, ambivalent
in their vinyl seats. The girls gossip and stamp
their black-laced feet. Some part their legs a bit.
Something's begun, some urgent heartstrong need
For root and seed that no old god can halt,
no worn-out creed. The train groans to a stop.
The girls get off in a flecked-skirt, skittish mob,
disperse. And yet, the taut wire of their want
persists; their sharp desire, its imperative.
(" Morning Ride" 75)
Throughout South in the World, Jacobson’s language is simple and direct. At times I believe this straightforwardness, the “everyday” of her subject matter works very effectively, it’s the “ease” Chris Wallace Crabbe mentions on the back cover. This is particularly clear when exploring relationships between mother and daughter. In poems such as “Sadness” (14), “Signs of Life” (15) and “Thoughts between Christmas and New Year” (78), this directness leads the reader to the intimacy and tenderness of love and its occasional misguidance:
I too was once a daughter
Pelting my own mother
With the still-hard berries
(“Thoughts between Christmas and New Year” 78)
Here the metaphor of berries as the not-yet-ripe bitterness of adolescence work wonderfully and any mother or daughter may wince in recognition, as I did, upon reading it.
Yet in other poems such as “Walking the Black Dog” (65) the simplicity left this reader yearning for a more visceral, visual experience and a more complex engagement with the subject matter.
Jacobson often navigates difficult terrain in her employment of a mythic subject matter that distances the reader somewhere “between earth and sky”:
I am dreaming of you nightly now,
Galloping white and luminous
against the sky
I wondered at times, how do these mythologies of angels and flying horses become real for me?
Jacobson states in her author’s note that poets are guardians of myth and imagination, that they (we) are charged with “strengthening our connections with mystery and the eternal” (110). For me, the poet was most successful in this, most vivid and startling, when she was writing from a position that was clearly anchored “South in the World”.
Lisa Jacobson, South in the World. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2014, ISBN 9781742586021
Giggs, R (2013) “Invincible Summer” Southerly (September 13) http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/09/13/invincible-summer/
Lawrence, A (2002) “In a Limerick Field” in Skinned by Light. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.
Page, G (ed.) (2014) The Best Australian Poems. Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc.