First of all, whether the author is dead or not, the poet isn't. There is a particular body behind each poem, a body that is the poem’s soil. Poetry in the contemporary era reminds us of the complexity of the body and of the self, and operates according to an uncanny paradox. It blurs the boundary between self and other, carrying us into experiences we have never had before yet which are oddly familiar. At the same time, it amplifies and clarifies the texture of the particular social conditions that define and separate us. These two new collections of Australian poetry—Salt and Bone by Zenobia Frost and Vagabondage by Beth Spencer—attain this paradoxical state, yet they take very different approaches to the poetics and politics of intimacy and otherness.
While Beth Spencer's earlier prose work has been described as surreal, fragmentary, hybrid or exploratory, the poetry in Vagabondage is none of the above. The book declares itself as a ‘verse memoir’, tracing ‘the pleasures and challenges of being in service to freedom’. As she turns fifty, Spencer buys a campervan and takes up, by herself, the alluring promise of the road. The courage of this is laconically yet powerfully captured in the poem ‘Shipwreck Coast’: ‘Feeling weak and vulnerable? / Try something harsh and challenging, / That'll do it’. But it is also evident in the profound intimacy of the poems. It's as if Spencer has opened the door of her little van and ushered us in; we knock knees, smell each other’s emotions, and laugh in embarrassment and recognition.
These poems derive from an aesthetic of intense exposure. They value and foreground the particularity of personal, embodied experience. They hold the reader within painful and complicated emotions and situations, often beyond the point at which you feel comfortable and detached. This is partly a result of their length (most poems run over two pages, many substantially longer), but even the four-line poem ‘Intimacy’ manages to embody the experience of its title in a way that is both claustrophobic and expansive.
I like to go away alone to lick my wounds. I wish I didn’t.
Similarly, in ‘Reasons to leave’, Spencer evokes with an accumulating claustrophobia the underside of hospitality, the intense discomfort and restlessness that is generated in the body of the guest, who feels trapped in the presence of her host. The poem is searingly honest and sometimes darkly funny, a relentless list of all the ‘reasons’ or excuses.
because there’s tension in the air and I’m absorbing it like a sponge and I’ve got to get out of here because you just want to watch tv (really?) and I’ve come all this way … because I’ve been here a few days already and you must be getting sick of me … because I’m in your driveway and I know you would prefer to put your car in here
But it is the interplay between the particular and the general that is most invigorating about Vagabondage. The poem ‘Carnage’ begins with a childhood reverie about those ubiquitous and poignant rural Memorial Avenues and the war dead they represent, passes through images of bloody roadkill, then pauses in a country museum and ponders the destruction not only of young soldiers in war but of Aboriginal lives and culture in the period of ‘settlement’. As I write this summary here, the parallels that the poem makes may seem fraught or too easy, but ‘Carnage’, in its nine short sections, manages to weave them together with a deep respect for their affinities as well as their difference, so that as Spencer returns to childhood memory the direct language is suffused with a mourning for the losses that have accompanied ‘progress’.
And I remember sitting in the back seat on long journeys through the Wimmera to visit relatives. Staring out at wide yellow paddocks. I loved the flatness, the vastness of sky. The straightness. The movement of the car underneath. The rare satisfaction of having both parents in the front seat together. Oblivious, as we drove through unmarked graves, the ghosts of forests.
In his Sydney Morning Herald review (‘Michelle Leber and Beth Spencer explore mythography and autobiography’) on 31 January this year, Geoff Page parenthetically complained that ‘there is not a lot on landscapes... and her road map is far from clear’. There is something to this critique. Certainly, at times I wanted more of a sense of place, to shift the balance of attention more towards what was going on outside the van. But in this way, Page and myself have misunderstood the nature of the road trip. The fundamental arc is always internal and relational. And it is in the nature of travel that the self is brought into question. We observe the landscape through windows that always reflect back our own image. Hence, in ‘The pain body’, Spencer gazes at the ocean nearby, while ‘wracked / inside / waves / of my own / making’.
While Vagabondage is undeniably personal, the continent and its particularity does make itself subtly known through these poems. Their language is laconic and self-deprecating, with a sense of storytelling that is fluid and engaging, yet rich with telling digressions and sudden pauses, with an Australian silence beneath them. Spencer's poetics operates in a confessional mode that does not exclude these essential silences. The poems are also interspersed with numerous photographs—magpies, clouds, vehicles, the coast, cobwebs, the shadow of the author on the ground—which at times illuminate the poems, and at others speak to them in an intriguingly oblique way.
There is still a recurrent complaint that free-verse is merely prose chopped up, with no sense of meter or internal, coherent form. The poems in Vagabondage see this complaint on the road ahead and swerve around it. They are not fundamentally concerned with language-play, but with affect, emotion, the travels and travails of the self. While the poems affirm the wilderness within (most overtly in ‘Free Camping (Wild Things)’), underlying them all is a sense that freedom itself is an illusion, or a horizon that recedes as we approach it.
Salt and Bone travels in different directions, both more internal and more expansive. This is Zenobia Frost's first full-length collection of poems, and on first glance, it adheres to the expectations that attach to a first book—a core of poems that arise from personal experience, from which branch off a number of explorations of other historical and mythical lives, woven through with nods to poetic form and history. First books announce that the poet has done her apprenticeship, knows herself and the tradition, but is limited to neither. Salt and Bone does this, but goes further. Frost is not anxious to prove herself or to make the poems singularly clear or fixed. The poems address the reader directly, often casually, yet they are possessed of a discomforting incompleteness and multiplicity, which is amplified, importantly, by the order in which they appear.
The first poem, ‘Warning’, is addressed to the reader as she is about to enter a graveyard, and implicitly the book itself, beginning and resting in the negative: ‘never believe the stone angels ... draw your eyelids shut as you leave’. The second, ‘Auf Wiedersehen Spiegeltent’, evokes the departure of a circus sideshow, and the poem shifts intriguingly between they and we. The first-person singular makes its first appearance only in the third poem ‘The Hobby’, but here Frost speaks as another, Anatoly Moskvin, a cemetery archaeologist arrested for committing crimes with the dead. Frost conjures the subjectivity of this man with great empathy, yet the overwhelming heart of Salt and Bone is with the departed and their continuing, difficult presence with the living. This is expressed, not so much through self-exposure in a confessional mode (although there is certainly great courage within these poems), but through an immersion in diverse psychological realities and the affect of place. To this end, Frost has crafted poems that articulate her own life and extend into the lives of others with clarity and vividness. The cumulative effect of the book, as it regularly shifts perspective, is one of stimulating disorientation, where the self (of the poet and of the reader) is revealed to be multifaceted and unstable.
Quite apart from this expansion of identity, Salt and Bone is also a book of memorable music and imagery rich with implication. ‘Before the Funeral’ begins, ‘You find her in the kitchen and your lungs empty. // This is the room where they cornered the fox’. Houses and the suffering and pleasure they contain is a recurrent motif. ‘Something Left Over’ is a prime example, a poem stitched with disparate domestic moments and permutations of language:
Our houses are like this: a brace of curlew in muddy yard; traffic cone tossed on the roof; mould on the ceiling left from the flood.
In the poem ‘Moving’, Frost evokes the uncanny and painful extraction of the self from its home, with a nonchalance that implies its opposite underneath: ‘In the end, / it’s like clearing a hotel room’. Seeing the old house again, ‘you realise / you scrubbed yourself out / of that ghosting house’. At the word ‘scrubbed’, the text is just slightly blurred, as if the still-drying ink were brushed by a finger. The effect is visceral and compelling; the poem opens out to the real. A little disappointingly, I’m told this is a serendipitous printing accident, but its impact is indicative of the generative ambiguity of the poems, how they prime the reader to consider multiple meanings, even at the level of concrete texture.
The final two poems, ‘Aftershocks’ and ‘A Letter to the Romans Sealed with Beeswax’, leave the reader with their own dark reverberations and messages, emblematic of how Salt and Bone negotiates with contemporary oppressions and the resources of history. The former uses unsentimental language to dwell compassionately within the long aftermath of sexual assault, and the pressure to downplay its violence:
you binned the evidence and laughed because it couldn’t have happened washed your skirt and washed the spiked glass with the others … a shrink asks if you were drunk offers hypnosis instead you become the mute epicentre of a word of warning
The latter poem conjures a historical Zenobia, Queen of the Syrian empire in the third century CE, who was known as a formidable warrior and intellect, conquering Egypt and claiming territory from the Romans. Though she was captured by the Empire, her ultimate fate is debated by historians—one version has her granted clemency and continuing life as a renowned philosopher. The poem is defiant: ‘Let my chest be an oven of courage, / my breath on your neck a warning’. This repetition of the word ‘warning’ is no coincidence. The counter-Empire figure lives on, powerfully within this poem, but also within the bodies of those who claim her legacy.
Taken together, the covers of these two books remind us of the paradox of poetry and bodies. Vagabondage shows a impressionistic open road, green and suffused with light. Inside, the expansive and difficult terrain is revealed to be flesh and bone, the intimate paths within. Salt and Bone shows in linocut an archetypal Brisbane house, a Queenslander, with a curlew perched on the bottom step. Here, the familiarity and stability of home becomes illusory, and the poems reach outward towards history, weather and friendships, as fuel for the journey ahead.
→ Beth Spencer. Vagabondage. ISBN 9781742586342. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. 2014. RRP $24.95 → Zenobia Frost. Salt and Bone. ISBN 9781877010644. Hobart: Walleah Press. 2014, RRP $20
→ Beth Spencer. Vagabondage. ISBN 9781742586342. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. 2014. RRP $24.95
→ Zenobia Frost. Salt and Bone. ISBN 9781877010644. Hobart: Walleah Press. 2014, RRP $20