Jeff Guess reviews married to this ground by Nicola Bowery

Nicola Bowery, married to this ground. North Hobart, Tasmania: Walleah Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-877010-46-0

 

“One swallow does not a summer make”

 Jeff Guess

 

Upon opening the first few pages of Nicola Bowery’s third poetry collection, I was immediately touched by a twenty-year old memory of time spent in NSW. The bus tour out from Wollongong where I had gone for a conference to the University stopped for lunch somewhere at noon in the middle of an Australian summer forest.

as lichen

seduces the fallen log

(“untitled”)

And I recalled that day and that moment perfectly:

this land too straggly, ungracious

(“my space”)

and smelt again the bush, the eucalypts, the heat, the earth

under the rusty mantle of last year’s bracken

(“my space”)

One of the strengths of Bowery’s poetry is her felicitous use of imagery invoking our senses on almost every page:

A robin lands like a scarlet full-stop on the bowl’s edge

(“Bird bowl on a tree stump”)

 I hear only the king-parrot’s

pinpoint note

pricking the silence

(“here and then”)

 In the distance the weighty drone of a tractor

slashing paths

clickshots of stones and sticks

(“moments”)

only the bed knows

how each body writes on the other

delicate transcriptions in daylight and darkness

(“The bed”)

I pop the eggs against the roof of my mouth

with my eager spatula tongue

savouring the contrast of textures

(“Fine dining in Noosa”)

The first untitled poem in the collection bears in its concluding line the title of the collection:

so we are married to this ground

It is a beautiful, accomplished and stunning piece of work, almost a sonnet it contains only thirteen lines. Its successful use of repetition in each unrhymed couplet:

as lichen

builds through a skilful trellis of words to an utterly satisfying conclusion.

Two questions are important here. Firstly why is there in no other poem in this collection that comes even close in reaching nor equalling its excellence? Secondly in the structure of organizing the sequence of a poetry collection why is it placed first when the reader is going to look for and be disappointed that this superb single poem will not to be found again. As I was.

The collection is divided into three parts and the first section here is the strongest, Bowery’s poetic strengths are displayed best when she is dealing with insects, birds and animals. Her figurative language somewhat on show in this suite of poems of which “Huntsman spider” is amongst my favourites:

his toenails pale or dark

his demeanour comatose or watchful

for any of us who either fear, hate or love these creatures there is much to admire here.

Her series of poems on birds is good and her use of metaphor crisp and compelling. Bowery is a keen and sharp observer of nature and it shows in her verse.

Such a dapper acrobat!

His black purposive cap

the elongated curved beak like a surgical probe

the chestnut cravat low on the crisp white throat

(“Eastern spinebill”)

One poem in this early part of the book “On why there are more man poems on this particular shelf of companions in my writing space” is quite misplaced. It is a curious, contentious and quite confused piece and one that needs a good deal more thought and work.

In the second section, “a geography of marriage” the whole collection begins to not only lose its way but becomes quite bogged down. There are twenty-two poems here and each one is the same poem written over and over again. The relationship between Bowery and her husband deserves perhaps “Mug” and “The bed”, which are delightful but not more. If there is any relief in these poems, it is when she returns to the natural world:

It’s raining. Instantly the lichen sleeves

on the blackwood branches are swelling,

their pale mint-green luminescent in the gloom

(“Country life”)

and

corellas shout

the noisiest of birds

 

hardly credible how they bawl

megaphones in their stubby beaks

(“you’re shouting”)

The daily ritual of a marriage: work, arguments, anger, memories, disasters, love, porridge, absence, etcetera are all handled well enough and the poems are competent and agreeable but there are few surprises or fresh perspectives.

In the third part of this book “elsewhere” the poetry not only falters but fails to comply with the title and central theme of the book. My complaint is twofold: the unevenness in the quality of the poems and that these poems feel added on. They are occasional poems and don’t/can’t form any kind of satisfying sequence.

Bowery sets out in married to the ground to map a geography of terrain and relationships. To show the reader her world. That she loses her way or that she has not done enough work on more poems that bring this theme to life is a pity. I do not want to be taken “elsewhere” with poems that are tedious, lack direction and add nothing to the centrality of the book. The last three poems in the book: “watching rugby”, “dining out at Noosa” and “a Zen retreat” should not have been included. They are not poems. They are good ideas and in each case a first draft that need an enormous amount of further thought, work, and drafting, editing and polishing.

And thus I return to page 1 and read again these wonderful, delightful thirteen lines of verse and earnestly hope that Bowery has more poetry like this to come in the future. It is both an exemplar and an example of how good she can be. It is such a pity that nothing else represented here in this collection rises to its heights of excellence.

 

Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Jeff Guess has taught English in country and metropolitan secondary schools, “Writing Poetry” at the Adelaide Institute of TAFE, and tutored at the University of South Australia. His first book Leaving Maps appeared in 1984 and was hailed by Judith Rodriguez in The Sydney Morning Herald as “a major collection”. Since then ten collections have been published, the most recent being Autumn in Cantabile (2011). Jeff has written three textbooks on teaching poetry and edited nine poetry anthologies. He has won numerous prizes for his poetry and been awarded six writing grants

5 replies

  1. I wouldn’t normally respond to a review of my own work, but maybe the memory of Val Plumwood’s brave and feisty spirit spurs me on!
    1. Whilst I much enjoy Jeff Guess’ praise for the opening poem of the collection, the untitled invocation beginning ‘as lichen’, his comment that it is ‘almost a sonnet’ because it’s 13 lines is absurd. There is nothing sonnet-like (or intended to be) about it. He would prefer it to be later in the book, so as to postpone his disappointment that all the other poems don’t match up – but it being an invocation that doesn’t make sense either.
    2. The poem ‘On why there are more man poets on this particular shelf…’ is positioned with other poems set in ‘my writing space’. ‘Contentious’? Good! Has Guess heard of whimsy, humour?
    3. Guess states that the 22 poems of the middle section of the book ‘a geography of marriage’ are ‘the same poem written over and over again’. His proclamation ‘The relationship between Bowery and her husband perhaps deserves (two poems) ”Mug” and ”The bed” ‘…would seem somewhat beyond his mandate as a reviewer. And does he mean these two poems are the same poem…along with the other 20? What is the one poem?
    4.Do all poems in a collection need to relate to the collection’s title? To relate thematically to each other or be sequential? Guess seems to think so.
    5. Guess suggests the last 3 poems are not poems and are first drafts. I’d be thrilled if my first drafts came out like that! Sure, they have a different style from others, the last two each of a few pages with a more elongated, conversational rhythm but I’m confident they are poems. I urge readers to make up their own minds, and thankfully many have.
    Nicola Bowery

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  2. I have read and reread Nicola Bowery’s poems and at one stage held a reading of the poems to a local group of poetry lovers who thrilled to the work so I cannot understand the harshness of the criticism in this review. Something is missing in Mr Guess’s understanding of the reverie into which one goes when Nicola Bowery intertwines the complex experience of love, nature and ground. This she does superbly, and it is her “felicitous use of imagery on almost every page” that takes one into this reverie. Her work sweeps you up in her inner experience, so personal, yet so familiar and universal. We think we are reading about ourselves and she nails it about the ebb and flow of relationships. Contrary to the 22 poems being the one poem, as Mr Guess suggests, they develop the theme of the contrariness of love and nature and carry you with them into the world of the internal in an honestly and beautifully written sequence that ends satisfyingly in the idea that it is all worth it and that love and nature are similarly designed to intrigue and confound us. That could not be achieved in the ‘one’ poem.

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  3. Thank you, Nicola and Denise for your comments and Jeff for your review. As has happened before, a critical review in this journal has prompted me to purchase a copy of the book for myself. I look forward to reading Bowery’s married to this ground when it arrives, and making up my own mind about it, as I hope readers do also, either buying or borrowing books, the reviews of which pique their curiosity or interest.
    Anne Elvey
    Managing Editor

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  4. I come late to this discussion, but I want to add my voice to the other comments in their support. Jeff Guess requires “surprises and fresh perspectives” for a poem to impress him, and it seems he’s disappointed by poetry that travels closer to the bone of what it seeks to express. For me, Bowery’s poetry in this collection achieves an impressive integrity precisely by following what could be called the truth of its occasion, rather than striving to impress with the superficial “surprises and fresh perspectives” that seem to be the stock-in-trade of so much contemporary poetry.

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    • Thank you for the comment Meredith. It is good to see that Nicola Bowery has a careful and interested readership. I did like the opening poem (preface to the collection) that Jeff Guess comments on so favourably, and it is different in style to most of the others I think. But now that I have the book myself, I have found others engaging, for example, “On your return from the northern hemisphere”, and I admire the way Nicola observes interactions so nicely, as in “See how it happens”: “how the man pinions the woman / with his voice”, though perhaps this can happen in reverse also. Taste, and its concomitant, judgement inform our reviews of poetry and I respect that Jeff has striven to maintain his integrity in his review according to his best judgement. This may as you suggest be a question of poetics. Thank you, Meredith, for your insight into the kind of poetics of Nicola’s work “that travels closer to the bone of what it seeks to express” than some contemporary poetry might seem to.

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