Jennifer Harrison: Folly&Grief

Melbourne: Black Pepper, 2006, 133pp.

One of the features of Jennifer Harrison’s work is the way that the themes are consistent and the styles change. Folly&Grief is, quite simply, a brilliant book. To get a sense of what it is doing and where it is positioned, though, it is more than helpful to look at her previous work. Her first book, Michelangelo’s Prisoners (published in 1994), began with a group of poems about the body which position the author both as external analyser and participant ; that is as body-owner.

The first poem, “Imaging the Brain”, looks at that unknowable entity in terms of the traces it leaves, one of which is the very poem we are reading:

. . . . . 
The scan declares a brain is free
Of tumour or haemorrhage
But doesn’t comment on the mind’s possibility.

Idle, industrious, the faint white streamers
Which streak the filmy cortex
Must be sentences.

Other poems (such as “Cancer Poem”, “Chemotherapy”, “Outrider” and the title poem) seem based on a personal experience of the body going wrong and so have a less-removed, occasionally nightmarish quality. Nevertheless they are still defiantly analytical in mode.

The second section of Michelangelo’s Prisoners is called “The Sea”. Here, especially in the last poems, it foreshadows the next book, Cabramatta/Cudmirrah. The central poem of this section is a sequence of seven sonnets called “Maturana Songs”. It is central because the biologist/epistemologist figure which it celebrates provides a philosophy which seems to underpin much of Harrison’s work. Since Maturana’s work gravitates towards the image of “drift” for the way in which human and non-human systems inhabit an environment, we can expect that seas in Harrison’s work will never be simply seas. Insofar as the sea is opposed to the body then it does inevitably symbolize the mind but the conventionality of this image (with its attendant symbols of fishing, drifting etc) is complicated by the addition of the idea that it also represents the medium that we inhabit and never control.

If each observation is a system
each thought an adaptation, then we drift
upon a spacious sea.
Slippery meanings flash through weeds . . . . .

So the sea poems at the end of Michelangelo’s Prisoners, like those in Cabramatta/Cudmirah, have a decidedly equivocal quality: they describe a medium which can represent the brain, the house of memories and creativity, but which can also represent a kind of primal medium out of which observers produce what they imagine to be solid “objects” and experiences but which don’t in fact have any “objective” status though they do serve to obscure the fact that they have been created. It recalls Tarkovsky’s Solaris though that wonderful film never appears in any Harrison poem that I know. To put it mildly, a lot of things are happening when this poet goes down to the sea.

Cabramatta/Cudmirah is a book of memories: the titular suburb and coastal town being the twin poles of the poet’s upbringing. But memory for Harrison is far more than the re-creation of old, loved places. The first section is obsessed by fast travel and roads, symbols of the passage of time, and makes no bones about its interest in the very act of observation:

but this isn’t how you remember it
now that the highway by-passes
everything that is ordinary
you see only the ordinary invisibility of speed
you are unsure which cows
are trees, which trees are people
the anabolic blur flattens the lot
until you are driving fast into your own history
and digging deep into the eye within
which is the only place you see it

The second section takes us back to the sea which is looked at through all the possible symbolic filters. It is the medium, it is also process, the natural world, the unconscious mind, the meaning-laden underside of a poem, and all human bodily fluids. There are two major human figures: a wise gypsy and a grandmother. Since the latter is suffering from Alzheimers she is a place where memory is slipping into the dark and her character is the reverse of the poet who pulls memories into the poems. Poetry is always responsive to this central human dilemma: the almost infinite details of life (the exact call of the local currawongs outside my study as I write this, for example) slip continuously into the irretrievable. Those things that are retrieved – chance items in a vast shipwreck – can be fixed in a poem but they do no more than remind us of the enormity of what has been lost. At any rate, one of poetry’s functions is to be aware of its power to fix: as Yeats says in “Easter 1916”, “I write it out in a verse” and that poem celebrates poetry’s transforming power while seeming to record a transformation wrought by political commitment. One of Harrison’s poems, “Thermocline”, sets up a three-layered sea. There is the surface (the world of phenomena), the deep ocean (the world of forgetting), and between them the thermocline where memories are preserved and have an influence on the waves and currents of the surface. It seems schematic but it is a good poem:

. . . . .
Lying between the eye’s horizon
and the eye’s blindness
the thermocline hoards memories that do not fade

for without light, without heat
the sea would be an infinite homogenous

Cudmirrah Shoalhaven Swan Lake Ulladulla.

Waves are never one colour -
they inhabit space not place -
they’re in the sea’s lung
then they’re out in the open
mouthing the smoke of Bherwherre -

then they curve to the shore
taking the ship’s dog with them.

Girls lie nearby
rubbing hot-noonday suns
into their skin’s cool echo.
I must think of the wave as a diary.
Scarcely daring to read
what I have written the day before
in case I edit what I mean.

There are enough surprises here to overcome the schematic quality. I like the unexpected ending and I really like the listing of the towns in the middle – it is as though a list will re-establish the power of the poem to fix particulars. Another poem, “Sea Eagles”, seems to suggest that a list of remembered items can have an incantatory quality as though each object became sacred:

. . . . .
See grandmother - we
are recording the swimmer
the cry, the unexplored X, coloured red

meaning this is where
we will go without finding
the village of strange implements and boasts.

There is a way of touching the dreams of another
of calling when you have no voice.
We make a tower from sticks
and hang it with feathers, funeral stones
rubber thongs, whelks, a wind-chime.

There is a lot that is relevant to Folly&Grief in that image.

Poets develop and change in their own ways and are not required to please their readers, but it is hard not to think of Dear B as a disappointing book. The bulk of the poems seem extremely gnomic and don’t – unlike the poems of the first two books – suggest approaches that a reader might take. What are we to make, for example, of “Husk”?

Your nervous heart insists
that lightness makes sense of grace
that boneless time weighs the seed and
spills its morse as choreography
now prisoner stammering
in the breathless crevice - fly fly
across flagstones: smooth
tumbling brief - pinned now
to the ragged branch
you disappear longing to see.

Yes it is about the seed which carries its plant’s DNA across cracks in stone and paving and ends up in a tree and it is also about the heart’s desire to approve of the weightlessness of the seed but it is hard to determine the poet’s stake in all this: what makes it a necessary poem instead of a merely incidental one. The same could be said of the bulk of the poems in the book although occasionally, in poems like “Local Astronomy” and “A Serious Case”, familiar themes (memory, system-identity) push through. And the poems are not necessarily bad. Everything I have said in a way applies to “Out of Body Experience” which is, in its own way, a tour de force:

Last night I lay above myself in the dark
looking down upon a stranger beside him.
Momentarily, in the moonlight, she was that person
I am no more, the one seen from far away
who cannot be regained or changed
and whom the dawn will not unite.
The two women who lie awake beside him
cannot speak or touch each other.
One is made of earth and blood, the other
of air and moon-frost. All the night between them
is past and future night
so that everything I have done, everything she watches
becomes a memory, now passing
as I sleep and wake outside her, inside myself, beside him.

The brilliant opening works by quickly and unexpectedly introducing a third person as a kind of marker point so that the spectral self looks down on “a stranger beside him”. But even this poem despite its personal theme has an impersonal quality, almost as though its ideal housing would be some kind of anthology where poems don’t need to be read through their individual author’s obsessions and thematic and stylistic quirks.

And so to Folly&Grief. At the simplest level we can see that, like the first two books it is in two parts. It is also a long book, each of the parts being as long as a conventional book of poetry. Each section ends with a diary-like poem that represents something that is, as far as I can see, new in Harrison’s work – though Dear B does contain a diary section in one of its longer sequences. But the overwhelming impression that a first reading of Folly&Grief makes is of the almost all-encompassing symbolic set-up built around commedia dell’arte, mime, clowning and funambulism. You can get the wrong initial impression – as I did – that this is a kind of got-up research project that a poet might put to an arts-funding body: promising to write a sequence about the circus world. In fact the obsessions of the earlier books are here and the magic of Folly&Grief is that these obsessions find a natural, logical home in the world of the clown and the mime. In fact the nature of these obsessions becomes so much clearer when they are opened out, so to speak, into a different symbolic realm.

When discussing the earlier books, I have already spoken about the features of memory and the way a poem can fix them. Sometimes these memories actually are embedded in objects inherited and kept. It is no accident that the word “heirloom” occurs so frequently in Harrison’s poetry. We meet these pregnant objects in the first poem of Folly&Grief, “Funambulist”.

Coins fill the busker’s hat;
it’s true, a thief will steal from the blind.
Satellites spin delicate journeys
in the woods above.Space

the guestroom we never had.
Malleable, down below,
in the mute neon between streets,
we’ve touched only the details of maps.

Believing ourselves beamed upon,
we script new mercy themes
and here are the things I carry:
a silver bell, a desk, a lock of hair,

some laurel flowers, a lantern,
a bonbonnière, three scarves,
a black cat, a peacock, a box of rain,
a streak of lightning,

a ladder, a pipe, a coffin, a fan,
a pumpkin, a skull, a book of law.
Believing myself beamed upon,
I carry one clap of thunder, some shrimps

and a globe, a bag of nails, a carton of crème,
a rolypoly of doves.
I carry the city, the cleft mirror,
the faked fight of the fist on the drum.

Part of the magic of this initially strange poem is its movement into list. Instead of fixing one item by focusing on it, it provides a list which suggests the infinite number of possible items for the character to carry and, at the same time, takes over the poem: a really fascinating structure. The list itself is an abbreviated version of the one provided in Kay Dick’s history, Pierrot, as an account of the property of the greatest of the Pierrots, Gaspard Deburau, who flourished in Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It is tempting to look back to the idealist position of Maturana and to begin to make symbolic connections. If the world of objects is essentially illusory then what better expression of this could be found than the world of fixed-role comedians and, above all, mime. I think it would be reductive to see this as the essential principle behind the poems of the book but at the least it can be said that the circus world is one whose thematic possibilities chime well with poet’s obsessions. “Ringmaster”, for example, is the monologue of a character reluctant to be a mere clown, one who wants to seize the key to Rimbaud’s “barbarous sideshow”:

. . . . .
But I went inside the rough sketch of a woman
to find the dice’s grace -

to find hail drubbing on an old Zephyr sedan
a ringmaster’s whip scything the air.

I went to the circus to take charge;
to remove blouse after blouse.

I went alone
because to master the sanded weights

a juggler first conquers clumsiness
then writes the same poem, over and over.

Sometimes it is possible for the power of memory-objects to be overwhelming. The first prose poem of “The Feminine Sublime: Two Briquettes” treats heirlooms as dangerous:

Should I open this pressed metal trunk with a surface like  crocodile skin - should I fall in - I might not return. Crocheted into  doilies, the dead wait with powdered faces, bleeding floral lips and  sometimes with kind, eccentric maps. However kind they may be, they lure  you into memory, there to tangle their perfumes through your own until  you cannot resist the past’s vigilance. And what you find is a caravel  treasure: satin pennants, third place, lace, the cigarette box your  father made from matchsticks . . .

But there is more going on in the book than an exploration of the theme of memory through the image of the clown and the collection of heirloom-objects. “Cochlear Implants”, a poem – obviously – about an operation that will stop the world being an experience of mime for the sufferer, focuses rather on the heightening of the visual sense over the auditory:

. . . . .
You believe the ear is Orphean -
I treat it as an appendix in the mirror.
Before I take the bee inside

give me time
to memorise the poem I’ve seen:
the red hibiscus in bloom

my street without shadow -
outside my window, men in mime digging
with their jackhammers at noon.

Another theme related to the idea of the world as shadow, playacting and illusion is the mirror. A fine and very complex poem, “Fauna of Mirrors”, explores this at length, using both the ancient Chinese idea that mirrors harbour their own creatures (not necessarily well-disposed to the watchers on the other side) and the idea that the mirror contains our entire past. The world of Cudmirrah recurs:

. . . . .
Starlight twists inside the mirror
and an old woman wades barefoot across the moon, later
washing towels of blood to hang between the fibro houses
clutched around a shore. Children there, too, shaking the sand
from polished bones - a bird’s skeleton, its stutter raked
by storms . . .

And it reminds us that the gypsy character from Cudmirrah, Moss Wickum, is celebrated in a poem in Michelangelo’s Prisoners as “a man who threw shadows / on a fibro wall: a rabbit, a parakeet, a balloon twisted / into a giraffe”: he too inhabited the world of illusion and a kind of mime. And it reminds us of an earlier poem in that book which concerned itself with sign-language: “and foam, rubber, snow and glycerine / seem softer in the fingering span / than spoken words falling short of what they are”.

“Fauna of Mirrors” concludes not with the French priest’s catalogue of the Chinese notions of what inhabits a mirror but with an allusion to Borges, that connoisseur of objects like books and mirrors which trouble us by suggesting the infinitely multipliable nature of reality. Borges’ “baldanders” – “soon something else” – in his Book of Imaginary Beings can teach us how to converse with objects and becomes the subject of a sequence in Folly&Grief in which the figure of the poet becomes his partner. This first section also contains two fine poems, “Glass Harmonica” and “Chinese Bowl” which seem (at least in my inadequate readings) to focus on the positive, creative aspects of objects and art. In the former the artist playing on the instrument conjures up images far beyond those imagined by the inventor and players of this exotic eighteenth century instrument and in the latter the artwork contains in itself, and makes available, the entire cultural history that went into its making.

References to the world of professional illusion become a little sparer in the book’s “Grief” section although there is a poem about Antonioni’s Blow-up (a film which includes a mime troupe as a framing symbol) as well as poems about dancers, musicians and statue-mimes. Overall these poems seem, true to their title, darker and, above all, obsessed by loss. In “The Steyne Hotel” it is a friend suffering from cancer and in “Birthday Poem” it is the poet herself accommodating herself (at least in my reading) to the stream of time symbolised in a strangely clarifying rainstorm and the fact that “more bark has fallen from the gum tree”. “Soiree at Black Lake” is a complex poem about the attempt to find a place outside of time:

. . . . .
A man stroked my hair
and said, memories are grasses; 
flax, hay, lawn - a little traffic 
a bicycle bell - all is at it was. 
There is nothing to fear.

But I didn’t believe that lullaby
. . . . .

And I knew, then,

that the cruel hours spring back
when the hay is cut, the lawn mowed.

And “Fathers” has one of the books finest treatments of memory – though also one of the darkest. The poet is reading the work of Li-Young Lee:

Tonight when I read your poems, I think
nothing in you grieves that should sleep, nothing
hungers that has not been fed, nothing glimpsed
through a door or feinted by a corner of light

has been lost. Memories corner us
into type - and the untidy ghosts are arriving
by later, less punctual trams. Outside ourselves,
then, are the essential moments

not here in these poems, these crowfolk
of the streets, each dressed in invisible black
each hurrying beside the traffic
bird-poised ahead, buoyed by life’s recompense.

Finally there are the two sequences, “Folly” and “Grief” which end each section – one of ten pages the other thirteen. It is difficult to know exactly what to make of them beyond saying that they are clearly movements into new territory. They have something of the cast of those psychological/autobiographical sequences of the seventies – Andrew Taylor’s “The Invention of Fire” and Jennifer Rankin’s “The Mud Hut” are two very different examples. They are odd sequences and it is hard to judge how successful they are. They certainly represent yet another kaleidoscopic retreatment of previously met themes and images and we know immediately that we are in familiar territory when the first poem of “Folly” speaks of the ability to

. . . dip my hook
over the side
and retrieve deletions
that have left my mind

this theatre more tawdry

than last year’s

. . . . .

and the second poem establishes a riverscape

where shallow swamps
are littered with memorabilia

as the sea hoarding its wrecks
art folds back on itself
. . . . .

But familiarity with the poet’s thematic material only goes so far. Beyond saying that “Folly” is centred on a return home, or movement to another home (it concludes with another reference to the sea: “ . . . marshlands / reclaimed by the sea / leave no trace of nests”), and that “Grief” is about treatment for cancer and is built around the equation of the body with the land and recalls the poem “New Road In” as well as the much earlier “Cabramatta” in its interest in the metaphorical possibilities of the road, I am not sure I would trust myself much farther. This does not mean, though, that I think they are failures as poems or are modes that the poet will not profitably explore. In fact it may not be the case that Harrison’s future books work through this diaristic-imagistic-unconscious-oneiric quality. There are, however, a couple of other poems in Folly&Grief which are open, relaxed and celebratory. I am thinking especially of the second of “The Feminine Sublime” prose poems which is a celebration of the act of childbirth and of “Tamagotchi Gospel”. This poem is about experiences of childhood and the natural world and has an expansive, relaxed, long-breathed quality which is a long way from the delphic images of “Folly” or “Grief”:

It may be nothing more than a faded awning
tilting in oleander sun,
or the way someone rings on the mobile
at just the right time, someone
who might not have noticed
your regard for their humour,
or the way you admired the coral torque
against their skin last spring.
And see how happy you are
when alone in the bush,
the others ahead as mossed voices,
you arrive at the fern-lit pool
where the bird of long wings and hard eyes
dips to drink from the creek’s sigh?
. . . . .
There is no freedom from change
but it is quiet, words nowhere to be seen -
quiet as your father’s favourite silence:
the psh!psh! of waves softening the shore,
the silence of bush bees
chiming hard and bright
against the earlier time you were here
dressed in a costume of leaves.

I am easily entranced by this poem – by this kind of poem – but somehow so much intelligent analytical material has to be left out to say these simple things that I can’t think of it as a model for Harrison’s future poems.