You and I, we are
now: the chimney-pots
out their smoke,
alert for its return,
are rare, or else
[from 'After the Elements']
These opening lines from Australian poet Judith Bishop's debut collection
announce that it will be no realm of colloquial anecdote. Instead the poems
create mood through strong imagery and an intensely lyrical imagination. The
collection is split into five distinct sections, but recurring themes and
symbols echo throughout.
'Desert Wind' introduces most of them within a few lines - wind (sometimes in
the form of breath or spirit), birds and animals, bees and honey, the speech
of nature, the power and limits of utterance. It employs a fluent, winding
syntax, panning across its scene, engaging all the senses, bringing the
overlooked and inanimate to life:
in a desert,
a random bird
alights, hoarse-throated after days of luckless questing
for a moth or
spider that has cellared spring rains in its body, so honeying
the juices of
itself: and when startled by a boy skating down the lane a moment,
swallowed by the wind, as a rasping draws nearer on the dirt
becomes the shuck,
shuck of a snake tasting engine
oil and frost, as if astonished
how far it
has gone across terrains...
The energy of Judith Bishop's writing can be seen in 'cellared spring rains,'
an entirely unexpected phrase, perfect to describe the action of a spider,
which is then juxtaposed with 'honeying/ the juices of itself' - the dankness
of cellar, the sweetness of honey, all one from the bird's point of view. On
rare occasions, I felt plainer words would have been preferable to the
surprising ones she reached for but, far more often, I admired the refusal to
settle for a worn phrase and the resonance she obtained by her vivid
I felt the same about her use of the poetic line, as if no line was ever
broken arbitrarily. The short line in 'Desert Wind', 'and turns articulate,'
might seem strange buried in such a long-lined poem, but its isolation
emphasises the articulacy of the natural world, an important theme in this
book. In 'The Shatter Rooms', the inanimate speaks to the poet as powerfully
as a word:
High bones of
the plane tree,
the hour; leaf,
crosswise on the clover
lintel; rain-soaked lilacs...
All my deft
surrogates for speech.
A particularly haunting example of this comes in 'Still Life with Cockles and
Shells', about a 17th century Italian painting. The painting
appears still and silent, but nonetheless:
in this painting like a child
not to be awake
It's night. A parrot watches, ships wait, five birds lie dead in a wash of
'unearthly light' which 'limes the sunken feathers.' It makes the poet think
of a post-Apocalyptic world. It made me think of a frozen Tomas Transtrmer
landscape in which everything is empty or absent:
Or else the
world has ended, but in
parrot turns to give her
to the dawn.
That's a dramatic image of desolation, a surrogate for speech, one of the
loneliest pictures I can imagine, a ghost of human language. The poem is
well-paced, structured mainly by couplets which step tentatively, but
inevitably, to their desperate climax.
A sequence concerning Doňa Marina, an Aztec woman who was translator,
interpreter and mistress to Cortes during the Spanish conquest, is spread
through the book in small sections. Language, speech and breath are again
vital themes, as Doňa Marina's linguistic ability was vital to the
conquest's success. Her resolve, doubts, fears, and betrayals are dealt with
using internal monologue and a chorus of two voices, with an almost
liturgical flavour to some sections. The conclusion proves that Judith Bishop
can write dynamic narrative as well as she can do lyric.
The image of wind is important. The first section of the collection is
prefaced by a quotation from D. H. Lawrence, 'Not I, but the wind that blows
through me!' Many of the poems are concerned with wind, breath and speech.
Anything can become a vehicle of communication: returning to 'Desert Wind',
the sound of the boy's skates and the shuck, shuck of the snake are a kind of language.
In 'Rabbit', the narrators wander the night 'searching for a tenderness, an
innocence at birth,' but the rabbit they follow is killed by a sparrow-hawk.
Judith Bishop creates empathy for the rabbit's fate, which is very human in
its implications. It ached 'to occupy/ the whole damn bubble of the moment of
each movement' and suddenly its life is taken. The close is devastating:
...with your hushed ballet of spring, you
coiled rites you have taught us tonight: showed our ropes of matter cut
by the one
puppet master, hanging in his own winds.
The tension holds taut beyond the final line. The traditional image of God as
puppet-master, above creation, is subverted. The 'deity' of this poem is
entangled with the natural world, which cuts our strings on death, but
remains at the mercy of its own random whims, symbolised by those winds.
This collection is an absorbing read, multi-layered and affecting. It
contains poetry full of ideas but never strays from human experience. The
desperate search for hope, joy and truth in the face of indifference and
death is played out within recognisable landscapes, which Judith Bishop's
language transforms and renews. Her poetic method is similar to what the
human voice does at the end of 'Desert Wind': it 'knows how to bind whatever's still,/ and for
long enough to touch.' If her poems bind, they do so temporarily. They don't freeze
reality into settled meaning like a snapshot. They pause fleetingly, just long
enough to touch.