Reviewed by Judith Bishop
The Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo writes in El Taller Blanco, “Reading a poem my first curiosity consists in discovering the distance between the I of the speaker and the generic body of the words.” A second distance is the one between the world and the speaker, mediated by the words. I wanted to discover both distances in Sarah Day’s poems. Ever since the ‘linguistic turn’ in literary theory, much poetry has emphasized the agency of words, their independence from, and even bullying of, the ‘I.’ The resulting distance between the ‘I’ and its words is often great, and also closely monitored. This is not the case in Sarah Day’s poems: the distance that matters is the one between the world and the speaker, and if her words rarely seem to have a life that’s independent of the poems’s many voices, it’s that the words have other, just as important work to do. Compassion and imaginative involvement are two emotional keys to Day’s poetry. The ‘I’ is frequently displaced by the vicarious third person, or addresses in the second, as Day’s words attempt to plumb the experience of being in the bodies of beings and organisms that are different--sometimes utterly different--from herself: a Jersey cow, a chrysalis, a crab, an iris bud, horses panicking in the dusty summer streets of Rome, the mother of a premature baby, a woman gone mad, a Lufthansa pilot lured to lift and leave the earth behind.
Sarah Day is an Australian poet, born in the U.K. This is her fourth book of poetry, and her first full-length publication outside of Australia. A notable feature of her poems is their vivid engagement with transitions and liminal states--between past and present, origin and destination, chaos and pattern, immanence and transcendence--which might well have begun with her childhood experience of migration. A giant crab hauled from the ocean into air “relives / the crashing through water-tension”; the Lufthansa pilot, settling in at cruising altitude, “is released / at home with absence, intimate with cumulus, cirrus.” The poem “Chaos” moans, “It is hard to see the pattern / when you are the lines that construct / or the lemniscate you are riding.” Despite the complaint, these poems often insist, in quasi-Emersonian fashion, that patterns and repeated moves--metaphorical “thoughts” and “idea[s] … unfolded”--can indeed be intuited in the natural world:
Between the green and the red,
between the stalk in the soup tin and the yew,
between the bare wood and the plum paper blossom,
tomorrow, next spring and ten springs ahead,
are clear thoughts. (“Paeans”)
Day’s New and Selected Poems shows that she has always been fascinated by the idea of material traces left behind by other lives. An anecdote: some years ago, I came across an odd graffito scrawled on the half-burned wall of a brewery: Be Sacred, it urged. Nearby, an anarchy symbol disappointingly pointed up the likely scrambling of those letters: I guessed the artist merely meant to write Be Scared. Day’s poetry and the slip in this graffito both call to mind the way such traces can, in time, become a source of either reverence (at the limit, saints’s relics) or reflection on our own mortal vulnerability (the frescoes of Pompeii). True, in Day’s hands these traces are more often a source of wonderment, laced with quirky humor, than morbidity. In the poem “Handles to the Invisible,” from her brilliant second book A Madder Dance, the narrator finds “words on broken crockery” in shallow water on a beach, among which, the name Phyllis. “Who are you Phyllis?” the poem asks, and chides playfully, “We know / you inhabit towers // that your bottle is rose and / amethyst and the fruit on your plates // more voluptuous than that between/your lips ...” She has an eye for time’s sly transfigurations of the new, such as flowers on a woman’s hat, “those dusty old hydrangeas / in congregations and on buses,” carrying the faded aura of a once-novel fashion into history, or “a newspaper’s urgent, ten-year-old / headlines”: “how quickly they become past to the uninvolved.”
The material world in these poems is hospitable, viewed at human scale; there is no hint of Melville’s ocean in this “sea-level vision”: “Time mixes and matches-- / sea-level vision with kitchen wisdom; / mussel shell, willow plate fade the same washed blue (“Handles to the Invisible”). Observing material traces, Day communicates a meaningful intimacy with others’s lives, made possible only through the impersonal I Was Here’s of used and broken things. “Porcelain question marks conjure countless long drunk cups of tea,” and an heirloom christening gown retains the “shape of children / roughly one age // intimate with one another’s faces, blood, / each wearing, knowing the other, all the others.”
That last poem, “The Christening Dress Comes Airmail,” incidentally exemplifies the prosodic fireworks Day is capable of setting in her most successful poems. The poem opens on a prepositional phrase, “Between Manchester and Melbourne / jetting a blue arc,” and only offers a resolution, in the form of the main clause of a periodic sentence, twelve lines later:
a brief scrawled address
and the diminutive portrait
of an unblemished queen
its pinked frame of reference
among so many Christmas greetings,
single serves of Life-Long milk,
hundreds of turkey dinners
warming to the indefatigable
engine sound, above, a pilot murmuring
to time-lapsed sleeping listeners
in a prolonged indigo dawn
that India drifts somewhere down below,
the century-old cambric dress comes flying.
In contrast, the previously uncollected poems that end the book are somewhat undermined by a lack of attention to the prosodic tension of the lines. Inconsistent punctuation gives a wavering feel to the weight of line endings, which couldn’t be said of the poems in Day’s middle two collections.
Montejo’s words are, finally, a lens through which to examine why a few of the poems, at both ends of the volume, seem considerably weaker than the rest. These poems are strongly projective; almost every descriptive word is emotionally colored by a judgment. The ‘I’ here overshadows both its words and its world; I miss the distance between them: “Even now you hang back, / loath to touch the fleshy female forms / recoiling from the plump translucent lips // of scarlet sea creatures--phantom lives / which float unanchored and without direction ...” (“Anemones”). A poem that tracks the televised responses of a sailor’s mother to the submarine disaster in the Barents Sea, four years ago, observes, “She is standing in a forum / of motionless men / gesticulating, shaping with her arms / the boundless dimensions of her rage ...” (“Russia”). The men are “motionless,” the woman’s grief “boundless”: the recourse to emotional stereotypes obscures the experience the poem wants to understand.
If much of the humor and rich expansiveness of Day’s imagination comes through in this collection, some very fine poems, such as “The Maid” and “She Hears Fear,” are inexplicably absent, while other, less successful poems, such as those cited, are included in their stead. Day’s curious compassion, her drive to experience existence from the viewpoints of other minds and bodies, is captivating and seductive. It’s to be hoped that this volume will garner new readers for the whole of her past and future work.