Rose Lucas reviews Sun Music: New and Selected Poems by Judith Beveridge

Judith Beveridge, Sun Music: New and Selected Poems. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2018. ISBN 978- 1-925336-88-7

 

Rose Lucas

 

Judith Beveridge has been an important voice in Australian poetry from the publication of her first collection, The Domesticity of Giraffes in 1987 and increasingly across the five published since that time (Accidental Grace 1996, Wolf Notes 2004, Storm and Honey 2009, Devadatta’s Poems 2014, Hook and Eye 2014). Her powerful ability to pay close attention and to evoke the specificities and the swirl of life about her has led to the production of a poetic oeuvre that speaks profoundly to the experience of being human; this is particularly the case in relation to her evocations of the natural world and the complexity of our human interactions with it.

It’s a significant gift therefore that Giramondo has produced Sun Music as a grouping of new work and existing poems selected by Beveridge. A substantial edition, Sun Music gives insight into Beveridge’s earlier work – although as the poet explains, she has elected not to include the long sequences around the life of the Buddha, from Devadatta’s Poems and Wolf Notes. The poems that are included here, although still often experimenting with dramatic voice, are therefore shorter, more tending to the lyrical, their voices and tone more readily accessible for readers either looking to revisit an already valued poet or for those coming to Beveridge’s work for the first time. The collection tracks the development of Beveridge’s evolving mastery of her poetic craft across time and provides ample justification for her position as one of Australia’s leading poets.

Sun Music is dedicated to the memory of some key influences upon Beveridge’s poetic: in addition to the poet’s beloved dog, Bandit, she acknowledges the importance of Vera Newsom, Dorothy Porter and Martin Harrison. Such an acknowledgement of these three poets reflects personal connection and loss; it also positions her work within a significant strand of Australian poetry. Speaking of Newsom’s poetry elsewhere, Beveridge noted that it was ‘characterised by a meticulous attention to craft, to clarity, to directness, to rhythm, to a sparse lyrical elegance, and by a deft tonal and formal control.’[1] In many ways, these are the elements which also characterise Beveridge’s own work as she works with brevity and control to engage with the multilayered, or, as she puts it, ‘kaleidoscopic’ (p. xv) worlds of human experience. As she writes in the Introduction to Sun Music, at the core of the poetic craft is ‘the deep connection that language has with the body.’ The rhythms and pulses of the body inform the clarity across the many styles and moods of poem to be found in this collection.

Not surprisingly many of the poems over this nearly 25 years, sound and resound certain themes, as she notes in the Introduction: observations of the natural world, particularly birds; the position of animals and how people might understand them or at least recognise their fundamental alterity; bees and beekeeping; what it might mean to find a position of personal anchor or meditative sensibility; the vicissitudes of grief and love. The early poem ‘The Herons’ (p. 24), for example, highlights a moment of intersection, of sorts, between human and bird: ‘One stood so peacefully / as if it saw and heard the single / far-off, crystal note.’ When the human observers move away, the apparition of the herons, indifferent to them, can only be understood in the terms of human metaphor: ‘They were / beautiful as blue veins in the wrists of monks / fasting for perfection.’ The collection is filled with similar moments. In ‘Occasion of Snails’ (p. 45) even the less humanly appealing snail is recognised by the speaker as a life, a creature in its own right – even if inaccessible to her, even if, as a gardener, she will lay her ‘poisons’ for them: ‘They have crawled into eggshells / as if into temples, as if into light.’ In the new poem ‘Camel’ (p. 227), the poet returns to a creature who has been used thoughtlessly for human ends, metaphorised into human stories and ideologies, who can yet be recognised and addressed by the poem: ‘Camel, I wish you cool sand always under your feet. / I wish softness for your leathery mouth: hibiscus, / zucchini flowers, figs.’

The poem ‘Wolf Notes’ (p. 112) explores a more uncomfortable aspect of the recognition of the essential ‘living creature-hood’ of the non-human. Moving between an imagined ‘voice’ of the wolf / dog (‘This is the place, this is the place / I’ve ached for, pulled the chain / of a long tendon and ached for) and a human voice (‘Look, all our lives we’ve been / baiting the wrong animal, / unable to stop because they know’), the poem takes us into dark, unchartable territory. Nature, and the non-human creatures within it, are by no means merely decorative or an opportunity for reflection and transcendence; their alterity, their unknowable agendas that tug on the chains of human understanding are circled and respected by Beveridge’s observant poetic.

Themes of loss and death are evident across Beveridge’s oeuvre, whether it is in the ‘tooth and claw’ of the natural world or in the loss of childhood and loved ones. The new poems in Sun Music are perhaps particularly attuned to these darker tones in an emotional palette. In ‘Revisiting the Bay’ (p. 175), the poet pays tribute to friend and poetic colleague, Dorothy Porter. The poem begins with the elegiac line of direct address, ‘I rarely come here now, once or twice since you died,’ and goes on to re-inhabit this once shared space and experience. Grief may hold us back for a time, unwilling and unable to contemplate the emotional and literal places shared with those we have lost; the eventual ability to ‘revisit’ – ‘my vision of you on top of the windy, tussocky cliff / hurling pebbles, happy, laughing, saying blessings for us both’ – brings both a recognition of absence and a treasuring of memory. To hear Porter’s voice ‘saying blessings’ is to be sustained, even by that which is lost, and to take forward the joyousness of that friendship. Similarly in the ‘Hymnal / Wild Bees’ (p. 187) dedicated to Martin Harrison, Beveridge’s poem registers both the finality of death – ‘I’ll never hear their lingering vibrato, a mind enamored / of its own music’ – and the beauty of those patterns, that music, that honey which her own poem weaves into the future.

The title poem, ‘Sun Music’ (p. 201) is a moving remembrance of the poet’s father, a man who moved from ‘the bottled depths of his own drinking’ to using binoculars to watch shore birds, ‘filling my sights with beauty and distance.’ Structured in two voices, Beveridge initially offers us her own first person vision of this transformation in her father, watching from ‘around the coves,’ while her father, with his binoculars, began ‘searching for himself / along the cliffs’ – finding peace and intimacy through the observation of the world, much as the poet herself would come to do:

… Now, he was intoxicated

by the sea, the sky, the spindrift a new

spell he could steer his life by

Using the skills of the dramatic monologue honed over many poems, Beveridge counterbalances her view of father with his own view of himself and the transformation of self which has been brought about by his engagement with natural world – albeit that this can only be the poet’s imagined sense of his perception:

Now I listen as a pied butcherbird, like a jazz flautist

in the trees, works on syncopated chimes and ensemble

phrased, its liquid crystal voice – music from the sun.

The collection’s final and beautiful poem, ‘As Wasps Fly Upward’ (p. 229), is a variant on a line from the lamentful book of Job and is an open line reflection on the complex physiological and emotional responses to pain. Here, this is experienced by the intrusion of the natural world into the literal body of the human, such as ‘the tiny beetle [that] will veer into my left eye, / its blade-like parts meant for slicing plant tissue, / slicing my cornea.’ The experience of pain, of accident, the bite or sting, or what can go wrong within the boundaries of our own bodies, leads the poet to a contemplation of death, the cessation of the observing point of view. As Beveridge represents it here, this ‘remember[ing] / that death will come,’ is certainly disconcerting, something to keep us wakeful into a long night. At the same time, her perspective is also calm, accepting, recognising the inevitable re-incorporation of an individual back into the wider world; her listing of the ways death may come concludes:

Or perhaps, just from a build up over the years

of light, ephemeral stings –

barely noticed, no pain worth recording –

just a remote hum in a honey-vault of light,

then a smoky drifting away.

As Sun Music makes clear, Beveridge’s mastery of her poetic craft – the shaping of line, the transitions in voice, the light-touched honing of the image – deepens and enriches across her oeuvre. From her quiet and observant perspective, hers is a voice which continues to speak to us of how we live, how we continually shift between an experience of self that watches the world and one that is, in turn, watched and shaped by that world.

 


[1] Judith Beveridge’s address, Young Street Poets celebration of Vera Newsom’s ninetieth birthday in 2002: https://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A20748

 

Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet and academic. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was published 2016 (UWAP). She is currently completing her third collection This Shuttered Eye.

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