P. S. Cottier reviews The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt

Sarah Holland-Batt. The Hazards. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2015. ISBN 9780702253591

 

P.S. Cottier

 

Sarah Holland-Batt’s collection is a thrilling, even gnarly, ride over and through the hazards of place and time. The beautiful and the dangerous swim shoulder to shoulder in this five part book, and are impossible to separate.

The first section starts with a poem describing the medusa, which “contracts with a heart’s pulse: / selfish, selfish”(“Medusa”, 3) and the last poem in the book ends with “the parry / of my heart’s stop: my life, my life” (“The Hazards”, 90). In between the punctuation of these two heartbeats, we find poems set in Australia, South America, Europe and North America as the poet explores the hazards that confront us all. The exploration is not confined to one species.

Everything is damaged in some way in Holland-Batt’s poems. One of the most striking poems in the book, “Possum” (“after John Kinsella’s ‘Goat’’’) describes with great energy the

bitumen-mouthed growler, rough-throated traveller,
sneakthief scratching the floorboards, (38)

and the language revs up in order to describe this disruptive exclamation that lives amongst us, moving quickly between assonance and alliteration. Most of the poem is one long sentence over many lines, a kind of chase after the elusive essence of possum. The manic energy of the possum and the transition to “quick smear / of possum on the road” (39) emphasise the hazards of dwelling too close to those who would invent the death trap of bitumen, and other flat weirdnesses such as floorboards.

The inescapable connection between seeing and erasure is explored by the poet in poems such as “An Illustrated History of Settlement” in which the eye of a person contemplating colonial paintings is seemingly directed away from anything that might engender too much thought, almost outside the frame, by the gesture of “a man in the centre’” Yet:

On a far headland, two black men
stand warily, one holding up
a toothpick spear
as if to puncture the clouds’ drapery. (12)

That decorous “drapery” is a reminder of how history has been dressed to look attractive to the intended viewer, almost a kind of window display for those who want (and create) a soft, even cloud-fluffy, narrative of colonisation. (This ekphrastic poem was written in response to several colonial works, which are detailed in the notes.) “Toothpick” emphasises the attempt to minimise the presence of Indigenous people, and to render them into a minor irritation in the history so easily consumed by a complacent audience. “Warily”, (a word that inescapably starts with the syllable “war”) points to a different, less easily swallowed construction of the painting, in which ongoing dispossession and death are recognised. In which the “far” is moved to the “centre”, or, at least, not miniaturised.

In “Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles”, a dead bird, wrapped in newspaper, continues to command the poet’s attention with “the tyranny of its open eye” (49). There can be few more direct examples of the attempt to contain the wild or natural in language than that of a dead bird wrapped in the printed word! At once playful and haunting, this poem demands several readings. The beauty of the crow becomes available to us after the ultimate hazard leaves it still, and able to be more closely approached by the poet. The epigraph to The Hazards is taken from Brahms’s use of the German Luther Bible, 1 Peter 1:24, translated in the notes as “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.” Here, the falling of the crow is the very thing that allows it to be memorialised. We know it (or attempt to know it) through its loss.

On my first quick reading of this whole book, what might be called a survey, I thought that perhaps there was too much geographical diversity; that the shifting locales were a little confusing. However, rereading the collection I was struck by the unity of the poems in dealing with he impossibility of perfection, whether in an image, or in love. The book is ambitious, and all the better for its wide scope, combined with inventive language and sometimes painful detail.

“The Invention of Ether” ends with the hideous image of an octopus tied into a knot by “boyish torturers”, “hopelessly suctioned, unable to release” (85). Here the imagery of love is as far from conventional or pleasant as could be imagined. The knotted octopus is an image that this reader will be “unable to release” for some time, despite her best efforts to free herself. That’s one definition of a good poem; you just can’t leave it behind.

Like the seeds Holland-Batt describes in a macaw’s gut, festering, “heavy as history” (29), this book is not one to be approached lightly; there are some poisonous seeds of imagery amongst great flexibility of language.

I can’t recommend The Hazards enough. It continues to surprise on each reading.

 

P. S. Cottier lives in Canberra. Her pocket book Paths Into Inner Canberra describes a bike ride through the city, and the wildlife near Parliament House. On Tuesdays she usually posts a new poem at pscottier.com, often about nature, monsters, or both.

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