Barbara Temperton: Southern Edge

Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2009, 112pp.

I first met Barbara Temperton’s “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife” in the 2006 volume in the Best Australian Poets Series (ed Judith Beveridge, UQP) where it provided a wonderful compressed, elliptic and barely comprehensible portrait of madness, or incipient madness. That three-page poem turns out to have been a distillation of a much longer work. Temperton, in her Acknowledgements to this new book, Southern Edge, uses the word “maquette” and it may well be that, rather than a distillation after the event, the version in the Best Australian Poetry is a sketch that was later expanded. Whatever – and it’s not an insignificant issue – the full version of “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife”, together with two other narratives, makes up this new book. I have a soft spot for verse narrative which I think Australian poets like Alan Wearne, Les Murray, John Scott, John Tranter and Dorothy Porter have done pretty well at, and I have an especially soft spot for those which work well. Southern Edge is one of those: an exhilarating, engaging and surprising book.

The three stories fit together neatly in the sense that there are harmonies between them and they share motifs and phrases. The first describes the fate of the wife of the keeper of lighthouse at Point King which guards the entrance to the channel leading to Albany. The second tells the story of a country boy who takes up with a heroin addict who is most at home on the rocky cliffs south of Albany. The third describes the journey made to Albany by the assistant (and lover) of a scientist who studies birds on the tidal flats outside of Broome. So these are narratives dominated by the same place and the place is the southern edge of the continent which, we are reminded, is constantly being separated from its true partner, Antarctica. So Albany is both a place and a state of mind. It reminded me rather of Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango where a similarly out-of-the-way place is defined in terms of the way it is a temporary home to those moving north to oblivion or moving east (sideways) into suicide.

Each of the narratives shares an event whose origin is the sea. In “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife” the central character loses her second daughter to the sea early on in the piece but she loses both ex-lover and eldest daughter to a wave caused by a shudder in the two separating continents:

The third wave comes from the deepest part of the world -
a shift in the earth’s crust raising a ripple
over the continental shelf -
with every rising metre it accumulates
fish that see in the dark, relics of drowned ships,
winged bones from the spines of lost voices.
Near Breaksea, mulie boats are downed
and, with the harbourmaster’s launch, dragged
across the miles-long backbone of the Sound
to stranding at wave-edge, hulls ballooning
like jellyfish at the high tide line.

In the other poems, there are witch-figures associated with the sea (the wife of the lighthouse keeper feels like somebody on her way to becoming something of a witch, though without the seductive capabilities). Julz, in “The Gap”, introduces a boy from a farm (where land is stable and water sinks steadily into earth), to a liminal world along the unstable coast where water is dangerous. She is adept at rock-climbing and fishing (crucial skills at the edge) but she also introduces him to sexual experience so powerful that it metaphorically unmans him:

. . . . . 
When she gave me back to myself
and I lay mute, gazing out at the high star-city
through the gap that had once held a skylight,
I was no longer a man but a child
curled into a question mark and breathing.

Julz bought me at cost price from my parents,
paying them in the coin of grief she paid her own,
for our absences from the shearing,
couplings in iron-outbuildings, in stacks of hay.
After my rebirth in the machine shed
my father drove out alone . . .

And in “Jetty Stories”, the bird-scientist, dying in the tidal flats, puts a curse on the lover who has left her so that, throughout his long, mad drive to Albany, he is assailed by vengeful birds. I think these characterisations work brilliantly largely because they are not overdone. The second part of Temperton’s previous book, Going Feral, was devoted to poems exploring the interaction between actual people and the mythical avatars they seem to suggest – at least that is what is going on in my reading of them. I don’t think these poems are really successful though they obviously prepare the ground for these later narratives: I think there is a limit to which one can tolerate the inevitable superimposing of mythical character with ordinary person. There is a limit to how many Persephones, Ishtars and Isises you can have wandering around the local supermarket. If the magic in the personalities of ordinary people needs to be highlighted, then it has to be done in another way. In “Jetty Stories” and “The Gap” there is plenty of the uncanny but nothing of overt mythical identification. It is possible that this derives from a plan to provide myths for the area – in that case recycled ones will hardly do: Albany is not Arcadia – but whatever the cause, the result is a triumphant success.

Verse narrative works well when it begins to exploit some of the possibilities that aren’t really available to verse’s charming but plodding neighbour, realistic prose. I have always (to ride an elderly hobby-horse for a moment) thought that it is one of the tragedies of Western Literature that its originary text is Homer’s Iliad. Wonderful as that work is, its canonical status tends to take away its freakishness. A work from an illiterate culture, recently descended from a full-scale warrior culture, nostalgically looking back to (and idealizing) a greater, Bronze age culture, designed to spin effortlessly and at length from the mouths of rhapsodes who, travelling from place to place, needed to entertain groups of men over a lengthy period, is so narratively distinctive that it should never have provided a model for poetry, let alone for its prose descendants. Its idealism, its excellence and some accidents have caused it to be edited and preserved intact but I wouldn’t be the first to feel that a full anthology of early Greek lyric poetry might have been a more desirable start. Verse narrative is best when it works in a completely different way to the Homeric model, exploiting –as Temperton does – the drama of ellipsis. Not knowing is the origin of all suspense and not understanding is the origin of our hermeneutic drive. And both these are familiar to spectators at a drama and to readers of lyric poetry who want, always, to know what the poet’s stake in the poem is, how true it is, where did it come from, or, more basically and more commonly, what does it mean?

Narratively, much of the brilliance of Southern Edge derives from its disposition of the narrative elements. “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife” feels like a set of animated photographs, or perhaps, brief film sequences opening and closing with fade-ins and fade-outs. You aren’t quite sure of passage of time between sections and you feel that this represents in a satisfyingly mimetic way, something of the central character’s dissociation. The very first poem (which, accidentally or otherwise, recalls the last poem of Going Feral) is, itself, about the odds and ends found washed up on the beach. I’m tempted to read this, as well, as an analogy for the narratives which are to follow: the task of the wife is to make sense of the things that are cast up by the vast forces of the ocean. Fittingly, at the end of the first poem, it says: “She has either left the world / or just stepped into it”. “The Gap” has similarly disjunctive scenes but blocks of quoted material and an alternation between first and third points of view adds to the complexity. I have to confess, in the case of this narrative, that I’m not entirely sure what happened to Jules: did she genuinely disappear, get herself murdered or die, on the farm, of an overdose? I’m reluctant to ascribe this uncertainty – which has persisted over several rereadings – to too great a degree of ellipsis in the narrative’s construction. I’m content to blame my own bad reading. And “Jetty Stories” begins as one of those narratives where we were told things whose significance we didn’t really appreciate: its first lines are:

The Traveller knows her intimately,
scientist in a red sarong - 
migratory bird a long way from home,
white-haired witch from the Arctic rim . . . 

All of the details here matter, but it takes us a reading of the entire poem to get any sense of their real significance. Later it resolves itself into a journey narrative with nightmarish bird attacks occurring sequentially and finally into a set of epiphanic visions (including the past as well as the present) on the jetty at Albany which convince the central character that he must return to the north. These final passages are not easy:

He understands about returning now,
that the sea is a fluid continent flowing by,
that land rises like the tide,
that there are no mangals in these cold waters,
no living sargassum,
what he sees passing is the molten skin of time
dimpled by uprooted seagrass, bait bags,
solute in solution: the cells of the water-dead
dispersed in ocean.
. . . . . . 

I think the clue to the Traveller’s return lies in this Heraclitean notion that the sea – not the land – is what is permanent and that humans exist as migratory animals across a universe of flux. There are no homecomings because everything changes: in each of the narratives someone reminds you that “the tide is turning”.

Verse narrative is easy to do badly and hard to do well – stories like these have to have the right balance of mythic resonance and elliptical, hermeneutical suspense. Southern Edge adds to the small group of successful Australian works in that genre: it’s a gem and a real surprise.