Meredith Wattison, Terra Bravura. Glebe, NSW: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014. ISBN: 9781921450631
When receiving poetry collections for review, I generally research online to find other reviews in order to gauge that particular reader’s response. In this instance I was not disappointed to find several written by most noteworthy academics, including Edric Mesmer from the University of Buffalo USA, and Antonia Pont a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University. Both writers appraised the work in an in-depth, contemporary and erudite way. Pont felt obligated as a reviewer to mine the work for its narrative / aesthetic arc and themes, while Mesmer explored its tethering muliebrity. Muliebrity! Wattison’s word in her description of 1950s women. (32)
While I agree with other reviewers that Terra Bravura is a difficult book to read (perhaps it’s the esoteric phraseology), I tend to explore the poetry from the personal point of view (the lyric ‘I’) often looking for a grassroots, emotional engagement. As I wended my way through its rather dense 140 pages, Wattison’s epilogue on the last page caught my eye. Whether this is a single poem or an addendum to the work does not matter. Here is a charitable look at an aging father with dementia that we come to know in this family auto / biography in verse.
I show him photographs I have had made from some of his slides. He doesn’t recognise my mother on a beach from their honeymoon, but then the placename brings forward a memory of being there, years earlier, and watching a nudist, wearing only a towel draped around her neck, walk from her cottage every morning down onto the beach for a swim, then she’d walk back. “You could set your watch by her”, he says, grinning.
Lately he has begun to wake distressed, looking for “it” – “Where is it?” He doesn’t know what “it” is. Only that it is lost.
Only that it is lost and also there, like a woman walking and melting into the sea, at regular intervals, 60 years ago, and now, with fondness. (136)
Poets and their fathers have been a major connecting subject in poetry, from Seamus Heaney, e. e. cummings, Robert Bly, Robert Burns, and César Vallejo, to name just a few. Poems about fathers by their poet daughters are even more interesting and Freudian linked. Anne Sexton’s poem “‘Daddy’ Warbucks” reveals a subliminal subservience to a powerful father, while Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” reveals the father as a vampire and a Nazi who tortures and attacks her individuality. Gale Swiontkowski in her study of Sexton and Plath writes that both poets use the word “Daddy” as opposed to “Father” to show a familiar affection and need, while undermining and challenging the patriarchal and hierarchal structure of “Father” as head of the household. In the Oedipal dilemma, both daughters are “compelled to defer their position as victim to escape the subordinate role … as with their enduring mothers” (Swiontkowski 2003, 27–28). It is through poetry that Sexton and Plath form a controlled and creative response to the affluent and powerful, but destructive and predatory father (Swiontkowski 2003, 29).
Wattison’s poetry, although a dense and obscure narrative, nevertheless deals in part with the archetypal relationship of father and daughter. For the purpose of empowering, not victimising herself, Wattison moves away from confessional poetry towards the symbolic and if not actual, to an equality of father and daughter through the mystical power of poetic language – “I do not tire of this combative bloom … he tilts at the enemy / I am not it” (38–39).
There is a candid nothing of our dynamic.
We are graduating foreground
to a flowering azalea. (115)
The father-eating folktale
is a solarised crop
of subject and infinity. (116)
This time he waves
as I appear through the gate
as though I wouldn’t see him,
a fluttering poplar, standing
in the garage,
Ach, du, Daddy (119) (“after Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’”)
Throughout the work, the poet conveys her empowerment by using various memes such as intertextual and artistic references, authors’ quotes, and symbolic ants, swans, mice, chickens, dogs, cow and fox. The fox appears symbolic and similar to Ted Hughes’ “The Thought-Fox”, that is, “the animal’s body as invisible, but which feels its way forward nervously in the dark”. This might also be that stalking presence (or it may be real!). Nevertheless, using an analogy of “aloneness / to have no other in view” from Jennifer Rutherford’s The Gauche Intruder, this “being” in the poem appears predatory.
It slowly slunk towards me, weaving low,
eyes at a distance, fixed.
I have seen it before,
it has stood at a distance,
now it sits at my feet rocking, squinting,
leaning its shoulders into my legs,
throwing its head into my hands.
(What to do with such threat?
I am painfully awkward,
What to do?
It smells of grassfire and soil,
Its eyes running, closed.
It demands intimacy.) (75)
There are bursts of emotional relevance in Terra Bravura. Wattison’s “Daddy” becomes a victim of old age and dementia and the poet becomes beneficent. The father, as muse, can and will inspire her creative mission.
he is deafened and seduced
by the brutal world of women.
He will not speak of Martha
or point to her in photographs.
He likes to give sprays of orchids
to women as they leave –
This delicate flamboyance
which evolves from orchis,
In this family history there is a complex descendant line fraught with problems. When the poet searches out the grave of her grandmother, Johanna Elizabeth Martha Kalisch, a dominance and violence is engendered on both sides.
I try to fathom her
in her burst knuckled,
The hint of red in my hair
Infamous for grotesque maternal punishments
spoken of only as interrupted,
their punch lines plaintive.
Her brutalised son,
his brutalised son. (12)
And of Martha (mother/stepmother?)
I am descended
from half-mad women.
Women who raged
grains of wheat
sprang to unconscionable violence.
I think of the inflective slurring
of the junkie at my door,
crying at my misunderstanding
of her question,
her simple request,
her defeated apologies. (15)
While this book is an archaeological dig into the past and the woes of the present, I felt rewarded after my reading for its contemporary relevance of family baggage (something we all own), as well as its experimental array of images and metaphors, for example: “Whoever named this wild mountain a cradle / knew the tilt of it (75). And almost a Steinism: “A photo of my mother / and her sisters / and their mother / and her sisters / and their daughters / and their mother / in 1960” (32).
For those looking for a more accessible work of lyric poetry this volume may disappoint. However, I believe many female poets who wish to write about taboo subjects such as incest, family abuse, miscarriage, social inheritance, gender power and control, and so on, might take several leaves out of Sharon Olds’ works. She offers erudite and masterly poetics into the controversial subjects that mostly affect women.
Terra Bravura certainly covers the brave territory of family archetypes, albeit challenging to compose them clearly. This is my only criticism as I would have liked to know more about these characters, especially the stumbling presence of Martha (19). This work may stump any beginner reader of poetry, and as for this reviewer, unfortunately it has been a difficult passage to understand a very interesting, complex family.
Rutherford, J. (2000). The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy. Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.
Swiontkowski, G. (2003). Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press.
Webster, R. (2002). “‘The Thought Fox’ and the Poetry of Ted Hughes”. The Critical Quarterly (1984) http://www.richardwebster.net/tedhughes.html
Helen Hagemann grew up in New South Wales and now lives in Perth, Western Australia. She holds an MA in Writing from Edith Cowan University and teaches prose at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Helen has been an Australian Society of Authors mentorship award winner, also a Varuna Longlines Poetry Award recipient with her collection Evangelyne & Other Poems published by the Australian Poetry Centre in 2009. Her second collection of Arc & Shadow was published by Sunline Press in 2013