This Shuttered Eye
Poets often agonise over their book titles. I take them as serious signposts of the intention of the poet, what it is she is trying to bring to our attention through the volume. For this reason, I spent some time thinking over the title of This Shuttered Eye and reread Rose Lucas’ earlier work, believing that each of her books can be thought of as a link in the chain of threads the poet is weaving. In all Lucas’ books her world is wide, her landscapes alive, her ekphrastic poems move beyond mere description into her own philosophy of living, and there is a consistent attention to both the act of ‘seeing’ and moving beyond that. For example, in the poem ‘Eye’ from her 2015 collection, Unexpected Clearing (UWAP):
jellied lens through which a
pour of silken light
might enter me,
travelling causeways of the mind,
translating into patters
hieroglyphics of shape –
a filigree of bright leaves … (37)
Windows are often shuttered to obstruct. But the phrase can be used to describe a person’s expression when their eyes are partly closed, in order to hide something they want unseen. Contrary to this, the shutter of the camera opens to admit light, closes to capture a moment. The eye is our shutter, opening to visions of the external world and closing to keep within us the image of what can be seen; to allow contemplation of those images. The purpose of a shutter then is to both close and to open; to expose and to capture. And the form of these poems often mimic that with their spaces, gaps, line jumps and blinking.
Lucas uses my favourite quotation from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, “we shall not cease from exploration …” to introduce the book, which sets up its purpose: to go out, explore, return still, arriving “where we started”, seeing the familiar as if for the first time. Accompanied by quotations from Baudelaire and from William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Lucas’s poems can be similarly located in the act of ‘seeing’. Baudelaire speaks of selection from the “buzzing confusion” of nature. From this perspective, we can think of the poet’s eye as one that requires some distance from what they observe, some way of raising the significance of observations and recording with a sense of noticing rather than merging with it.
This Shuttered Eye has three sections. In the first, ‘The Long Gallery’, we move past a selection of paintings and street art. Lucas has often chosen paintings to assist in her vision. Her lovely sequence of ekphrastic poems, ‘Monet’, in her 2015 book, Unexpected Clearing, lead us to the quiet moments in a profound sweetness, opening to “this perpetual and / renewing / season, / this perfumed possibility of / seeing / for the very first time” (10). These lines also show Lucas’ real gift for last lines of intent. Not to bring us to a conclusion, but a clarity, a wisdom, an understanding of beauty, a sense of loveliness ongoing. It’s no surprise then that Lucas has collaborated with Sharon Monagle in the engaging Who Do You Think I Am? Conversations about women’s lives in poetry and paint.
‘Travelling the Long Gallery’, the poem from which This Shuttered Eye takes its title, sets up the intent of the book, where “in certain lights / the not-present might be / coded / stroke overlaid by stroke / into the texture of the seen” (13). Here we find both obstruction and revelation.
In ‘Raising Lazarus after Walter Sickert’, “we try again / imagining / the mastery of art / over evanescence”. Her poetry, as does art, seeks always the “impenetrable space beyond / the edges of the canvas” (15). Merlin Seller wrote of the Sickert painting: “Sickert forces his viewers to remain at the surface, entangled with the painted body”, and that this produces “a dry painterly shroud that binds and expresses the body at the same time as hiding it”. There are also inevitable contradictions to this stance, such as impermanence and our ignorance of it. As the poem advises, “Look carefully hold / to the slipperiness of this moment –” (17).
The second section of the book, ‘Habitation’, represents Lucas’ perspective on the natural world. The poet’s definitive position on nature though is perhaps best expressed in the final poem of the book, where she writes:
there has always been more than can
be held in a single mind its limited
capacity for seeing patterns humbled
by the breathing of the treed world … (‘There is a tree’ 96-7)
Taking her own painterly gifts of colour and observation, Lucas dives deep into the landscape of a variety of places: we see its profusion in multiple countries, from deserts and bush in Australia to bog lands in Scotland “this tannin-soaked expanse / this permeable membrane” (55) and in the turning of leaf in America, and beyond.
Lucas’ ability to see and portray the natural world is made stunning through colour, action, detail, and the transforming power of metaphor. Whether it be in Vermont, which Milton Avery paints as “a generous heft of hills” with a “splash of trees”, of “lavender, mushroom, cobalt, lime green – / fluttering and feathering in painted sky” (58), or the Australian landscape which is particularly alive. In ‘Red Rock Lookout’, wind is “sweeping around … pasture grasses swish / shivering … spending their seed in a foam of air” (33). Images are original and startling: “cows appear choreographed tiny / synchronised swimmers positioned across rectangular / plots in scattered formation” (33). We are swept across landscapes. The inner eye begins at one point, moves, is involved, sees the breadth of place.
For Lucas, nature is vividly active. Through it we really see the poet engaged with the living, rather than the portrayal of living in paintings. And they allow her to reflect on creating the poem itself, as in ‘Poetry and Breathing’, where “every poem is / about breathing / about re-inscribing” and the “almost unbearable simplicity of / in / and / out” (28).
In the natural world, there are no obstacles. Everything runs and sweeps, everything is going somewhere vigorously; differing from her own garden (and that of Monet) where a stillness waits. Here is ‘Mount Elephant. Djerrinallum’:
Late afternoon light spills
across your swaying flank –
crouched and somnolent on basalt plains –
stroking you into lengthening shadows, still heady
with the perfume of summer grasses (31)
And after the explosions which formed it:
the molten surge that tore your lip
then pouring down
that wide gold-vermillion road and
out into the cooling night, its
open-fields – (31)
The most energised of these landscapes is perhaps in ‘Rain: Kantju’ (Waterhole at the base of Uluru), from which it is almost impossible to quote because its activity runnels along the entire poem. The water down the rock “comes coursing”, “rushing”, “streaming”, splashing “and still / falling / funneling the sky / down” into the “pulse of wave / after wave after wave –” and onwards into the waiting waterholes (48-9). Then there is the ‘Wind in Stanley’:
(Circular Head, Munatrik)
Way down below
the wide blue-grey sling of sea
with horizons of air
tugging … (44)
But the poetry is not without its grief and recognition of violence. For example, suddenly in the middle of these nature poems, the sad ‘Julianna Curr 1835, 2 years, 10 months, 14 days’ relates the death of a small child in a farm accident during children's play. But this child is one of Edward Curr's, the Manager of Van Diemen's Land Company in Stanley. Their house is "soaked with arterial grief” (42). Julia's mother agonises over giving up "this small and downy body / to the dirt". And yet, his colonial mentality is impervious to the family devastation he himself is creating:
All the while
Juliana's father and his company of men
spectres in furious clouds of
ancestral dust. (41)
In the third section of the book, ‘Homing’, we’re cast into the visceral, with poems on Walt Whitman’s caring for civil war soldiers who are raw and bloody from “all that trammelling” (88) leading the poet into a reflection on the death of Eurydice Dixon (92-3).
Love and friendship are also woven through the book. The loveliness of autumnal colours fills the Vermont sequence in ‘Habitation’, while:
... high on the hill
nestled in behind a sway and rustle of colour
the lamp of long friendship
trimmed and accommodated
through a deepening thicket of years.
(‘6. Butterfield Road, Vermont.’ 62)
And out of the walks, the ponds, the burnished leafy beauty, there are conversations on art and creating, arising out of long friendship across distance and time:
This story precious wherever you find it –
the always humbling
generosity of love
its many vicissitudes
its quiet attentions. (68)
The final section brings us back to the stability and settledness of everyday living, the resting place for the weary. But also to the personal, the more intimate. Here, there is the sensual, giving us “the ineluctable / undertow of intoxication” (86). But also, memory and quiet sadness: the poet’s airman father shot down over Darwin Harbour in 1943 where he is protected by “the harbour’s sealing / eye”, her aging parents “in this fog of terrible and / abrupt diminishment” (77). This home-space is also the place for review, for remembering, for not rushing, for stillness:
Returning to the same place
which is always surprising –
the familiar inflected
through a different lens
These places of accretion
archaeologies of memory and
event that don’t stand still
but are reconsidered
Using the image of the childhood cat’s cradle hand game with thread, the poet incites us to remember we are engaged in:
The glint of unexpected patterns
a fragility of threads
The touchstone of this
finite breath. (‘Cat’s Cradle’ 94-5)
Beautifully written with stunning imagery and a soothing quality, almost whispery yet so rooted, familiar landscapes arise renewed and there is a sense too of intergenerational sharing and familiarity. We were, so many, influenced by the music and poetic verses of Joni Mitchell’s “tussle of words—into jewelled and sharp-edged poetry” (‘Joni’, 81). Travelling through so many landscapes, Lucas’ poems breathe a deep rhythm as truly remembered, not struggled for, and we can come to rest with her, ‘Here’:
I know there is no greener
field no better place to
long for –
only here where
I happen to be
studying the way light falls into the world
and how the world rises up to meet it
this vital entanglement of thing and shadow
of what is seen
and what is not –
and shifting (30)
Seller, Merlin. “1932 A Deathly Shroud.” The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, edited by Hallett, Mark, et al., Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2018, https://www.chronicle250.com.
Lucas, Rose, and Sharon Monagle. Who Do You Think I Am? Conversations about women’s lives in poetry and paint. Liquid Amber Press, 2020.