Cassandra O’Loughlin reviews Even in the Dark by Rose Lucas

Rose Lucas, Even in the Dark. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2013. ISBN 9781742585321

 

Cassandra O’Loughlin

 

The viewpoint of Rose Lucas’s Even in the Dark is respect for ordinary life and the pleasure in living. The poems find joy and hope in the simple things shared with family and friends, despite the challenges of life. Her poetry is more centred on the sphere of humans and culture than on the other-than-human. This is not necessarily intended as a criticism, negative for ecopoetics though the connotations of an anthropocentric perspective are. Two main threads of thought are important for an ecopoetic reading of this volume. First, the poems indicate acceptance that humans are just one life form among others: human dominance over the other-than-human is not an issue. Second, they embrace the connectedness between people, places and the other. For Lucas, the notion of a meaningful relationship with earth is significant.

The motif of change seems to reverberate throughout the volume. All life forms are inevitably subject to elemental forces that change the way we are and how we respond to our surroundings. There is uncertainty to existence; the narrator seems to tread a fine line between toughness and fragility, grief and hope. Poems such as “Monica”, “Qana”, “Bunty” and “Air France Flight 447” are about our vulnerability and the temporality of existence. Vulnerability is an unsettling theme that is, however, not restricted to the human domain. From the poem “Even in the Dark” (33) the leaves are falling “all in calm readiness for the onset / of small things – / say, a chink of pale light”; “the “shift and slip of change” continues at all times, even while we are unconscious of the process. Everything is equally dependent upon, and subject to, the creative destructive universe. This is particularly evident in the opening poem “Heat Wave, Melbourne” which begins with the death of a ring-tail possum from heat exhaustion (her suckling young alive in her pouch) and a man struggling to get his daughter to school in the “metallic” summer heat. The word “meanwhile” is pivotal to the shift in focus of this poem from the non-human to the human. Although the focal shift does seem somewhat disruptive, it points to a sense of shared suffering between the human and the other in a parallel existence. This locating of the self towards nature leads to a humbling that is a necessary requirement for an ecocentric view. Humility tempers anthropocentric reasoning.

Human strengths and weaknesses are revealed in particular through poems about pregnancy, birth, nurturing, illness and death. Lucas’s poems of this kind, however, form common ground for all living creatures. Each species is subject to the body’s engagements and responses which are ceaselessly adjusting to things outside themselves, things that are continually altering. A summary of our shared existence with other life forms is found in the poem “Window” (107) from the section of the same name.

See how all

things might be

 

refracted

     here

in this small round,

in this brief

threading

of a needle’s eye,

how all the waiting world

might be

     quilted

and unravelled here.

 

The here-and-now is framed, and “all things” at any given moment, might be crafted and destroyed regardless of their nature.

The section “Jacaranda Time” focuses mainly on reawakening and renewal which is also relevant for an ecopoetic reading of this volume. In the poem “In Vitro” (85), for example, provision is made available for grounding ourselves in both our own flesh and the flesh of the external world.

I dreamed you

      child

   skin sinew tendril of

hair,

long, long before

my body was the boat

you rode

on your strange journey

up,

and into daylight’s air.

Here the reader is allowed to experience the resolution of the tension between the inner and outer environment, a merging between consciousness and environment. In this section too, joy is found in new beginnings, in the “hard place of love’s beginnings” (from “Adopting” 98), and of the revelation of “unimagined patterns” (from “Mid-morning Café” 100). From the “humble poetry of the backyard, / this ceremony of daily love” we are given “the rich harvest of the basket” (from “Clothesline” 103). In appreciating the simple things and not knowing all the answers we find humility.

In some of the poems the poet’s concerns are directly ecocentric. “Summer, Back Paddock” (16) serves as one example. The humans come to the back paddock as “visitors”, albeit equipped with “gumboots, folding chairs, [and] aerogard”. This poem is not about property ownership or about control; the people come into the realm of animals and birds as witnesses. They quickly become as if enveloped within the biosphere of the back paddock. Yet the human and the other, as separate entities, are each allowed to exist as instinct decrees. As the poem evolves it appears that the humans are not merely external observers but are active participants. To achieve this outcome, Lucas presents a subjective stance to experience; it begins from within individual consciousness and engages with multisensory perception. A visual description is not the priority here. The sense of sound, for example, is employed by the poet to direct the reader away from the human and toward the other; the sounds of the bush draw the reader in and guide him/her into the presence of the creatures and the shared hush of night:

the final swoop and clatter of magpie larks,

the persistent plink of bell

      miners, or

willie wagtail’s last

   twittering display

across the wire fence –

this way, follow me, this way! –

      before

this becomes the place of the gutturals of

bushy tails,

eyes caught

      red

      in torchlight, and

the scrabble and swish of tiny

sugargliders riding the wave of

twilight air from branch to

      branch, across to

outstretched branch –

filigreed leaves

      silhouette

against the leaching day;

they stir and subside in

      sudden

eddies of wind.

In this poem particularly, the natural world is used in metaphor to unite our being with the world.

Human physical integration with the natural environment is not generally suggested in this collection. The poem “Lavender” (6), in the first section, indicates a longing to close the gap between the human and the other-than-human. Longing to do so indicates separation. In this poem, for instance, the narrator is explicit:

I want to gather up these warm sheaves

like a swaddled baby,

and sleep in the shade of a tree –

there we will grow,

      slowly,

    yearning together like the

feathered twining of

roots

deep and pungent,

dreaming of the bleached

     light of day

In “Country Swimming Pool” (8), however, there is a sense of human integration in the natural world rather than a mere longing to be one with the other-than-human. In this poem the narrator says:

I lie on the grassy slope

breathing

on my damp towel, and

feel the curve of the earth,

   its heavy flanks,

   the loamy darkness of the soil

drawing me down

Here the body seems to disassemble “in the long blast of afternoon heat” and it moves toward a sense of oneness with the earth. Embodied experience is enhanced by employing the senses. Involvement in the biosphere is “felt”. This poem in particular recounts an instant in which human senses interlace with ecological happenings.

Lucas’s poems navigate a path toward reverence for the natural environment of which we are an integral part. Readers can feel the “joy like sweet steady rain soaking / into the grateful soil” after a summer drought (from “Coming of the Rain” 21). One can imagine the grasses lifting their heads “listening – / their wet faces open to the sky”. The reader is invited to feel part of the circumambient world through the conjuring of a certain “atmosphere”. As expressed by Gernot Bӧhme when discussing a theory of perception, “the writer [can] demonstrate a high degree of consciousness as regards the means by which particular atmospheres can be produced” (125). I suggest this is what Lucas is doing throughout this volume.

In the last poem in the volume, “Learning Bach”, the instrumental is a metaphor for the regenerative power in the music of poetic language. The narrator says:

I begin to speak the elegant risk

   of this language –

precise, cryptic

where sound, its rush and

pause, breathes shape, can

trace the hover of pattern across

a black and white terrain,

its swirl of shifting possibilities

One “risk” for ecopoetic language is the interpretation of meaning concerning the other-than-human. Kate Rigby, referring back to Immanuel Kant, warns against assuming that the way in which things appear to us (arbitrated by our distinctively human senses and perceptual constructs) corresponds to how they actually are, thus assuming human superiority (9). I am suggesting that Lucas avoids that risk by opening her poems up to a “swirl of shifting possibilities” that are beyond human interpretation. She also escapes this assumption in the poem “There” (36). Here the narrator speaks of “the endless encryption of / open slope and the denseness / of leaves”: that “life’s puzzle, / pungent with Fall” is concealed within another kind of knowing. This notion opens the way for an ecocentric perspective. Likewise, the birds and animals in “Summer, Back Paddock” (16) are living out secret lives and conversing in language that bars unauthorised access. The human observer is clearly inventing meaning for the willie wagtail’s call in his last “twitting display”: “this way, follow me, this way!” The perceived need to invent meaning for other-than-human conversation acknowledges the impossibility of knowing.

Proactive environmental awareness is rooted in consciousness and conscience operates through the senses, the associative forces of which are feelings and emotions. Lucas engages the reader in this way. Her poems are responsive to the natural world from which we are inseparable. In a persuasive, polished and openly honest style, she presents phenomena, sensory perception and the aesthetics of the natural world to offer the reader a sense of belonging within that world. There is a distillation over time, place and space of what matters for environmental concern.

 

References

Böhme, Gernot. “Atmosphere as the Fundamental concept of a New Aesthetics”, Thesis Eleven (1993), 36:113-126. http://the.sagepub.com/ Accessed 10 Oct. 2013.

Rigby, Kate. “Minding (about) Matter: On Eros and Anguish of Earthly Encounter”, Australian Humanities Review 38 (Apr. 2006). http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-April-2006/EcoRigby.html  Accessed 16 Sept. 2014.

 

Cassandra O’Loughlin is a PhD student in English at the University of Newcastle. Her work has appeared in several books, and in journals such as The Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Southerly, Meanjin, Mascara, Overland, Earthlines and Antipodes.

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