Tremors by Andrew Sant. Black Pepper, A$ 27.95.
Reviewed by Nicholas Birns
Tremors, handsomely produced by the admirable Black Pepper, contains selections from six of Andrew Sant's books published originally from 1982 to 2002, accompanied by fourteen new, previously unpublished poems. This book makes a strong argument for Sant's stature in contemporary Australian poetry, placing him in the center of one of its most energetic strands. It is surprising to realize how many 'cosmopolitan' poets Australia seems to have. There is, of course, Peter Porter, now granted his Australian identity by critics even though he is a long-term expatriate in London, and, in the younger generation, Peter Rose, Adam Aitken, as well as Sant himself. One might judge this strain in Australia poetry as stemming from A. D. Hope. Yet cosmopolitanism is not the same as classicism, as is shown by the fact that even the committed experimentalism of John Tranter has a cosmopolitan overlay in his work. Nor is it the same as being massively learned and curious. Cosmopolitanism implies a steadiness of tone, an imperturbability. American equivalents (Frederick Feirstein?) would be hard to find. Sant was born in England and individual poems of his are reminiscent of the work od Andrew Motion, Douglas Dunn, Roy Fuller, and James Fenton. Even more, Christopher Reid's blurb makes one give a 'Martian' reading to some of Sant's lines, e.g., “As if the world / is merely an object / whose diversity holidays / in learned journals.” But Britain does not quite have a poet like Sant. New Zealand (the early David Eggleton, perhaps?) and Canada (F. R. Scott?), with introspective lyricism still at the core of their poetic traditions, have very little of this cosmopolitan tradition. (That all of the aforementioned examples are white, male poets raises yet further questions.)_
A pat response to this anomaly of Australian cosmopolitanism would be that although Australia feels so far away from everything, its concerns are so global that cosmopolitanism is the result. But though Sant's concerns traverse the globe, he is firmly anchored in Tasmania. Even when it is not named (as in “Name Of The Island”), the beauty and idiosyncrasy of the Tasmanian landscape underlie the breezy and offhand copiousness of Sant's perspective. But it is a copiousness that includes not only the peaks of Mount Eliza or Mount Wellington but mundane events such as a children's football practice along with kelp harvesters, feeding rosellas, myrtle forests. Pleasure, rather than curiosity, becomes the non-Tasmanian readers' response to the poems. There is jauntiness that pulls us along instead of a kind of gazeteering photorealism, larded with bogus mysticism, which poets writing about 'remote' places so often present to their assumed metropolitan audience. Not fetishized as exotic, Tasmania in Sant's poetry becomes the point from which the rest of the world as well as the full range of mental experience can be probed. In early poems like “Myrtle Forests,” misty landscapes accumulate their own history, which can yet vanish in a gloomy instant.
Over the two decades covered in this volume, there is a definite consistency of form and style. Sant occasionally uses rhyme in his poems, and there is a hilarious sonnet sequence about Giuseppe Belli, the nineteenth century 'poet and Vatican censor' who is played off against the libertinism of twentieth-century Rome. In “Shower Medley,” what could be Sant's credo as a poet is slotted offhandedly into a closing quatrain: “for what's in dams isn't a spot / or flow when it's habitual / Give me extremes of cold or hot / mixed in a mega-ritual.” But the vast majority of Sant's poems are unrhymed, though he is very conscious of form and often uses assonance and other forms of unobtrusive verbal play to stitch his poems together. His lines tend to be short; a ten-syllable line is rare, and is often so casual (“The glistening river the kids notice”) that it 'seems' shorter. In the earlier work, a kind of default mode is the tercet where varying line length allows, and enacts, a flexibility of perception.
“The Behaviour of Plover” is exemplary not only in its close observation but in its reversal of assumptions, as when an intruder disrupts not the plovers' pastoral bliss but their 'refinement.' Similarly, Sant writes poems about fruit preserves and vineyards where the nature/culture dichotomy is pleasingly dissolved. But alongside poems like these, which extract the fullest meaning from one setting, are sequences--on Mount Wellington, on Australia vacationers in Indonesia, on the death of the poet's father--that cover wide ground, and leave much unresolved. Indeed, beneath the smooth textures of Sant's verse is much that is left open. Sant is intrigued by phenomena like fire, soundwaves. transmitters, and telephony which link one place to another (“every insight cross-referenced, interconnected”). These processes through their tremors (hence the book's title) spread currents of feeling or thought rapidly. But they also have the potential to annihilate difference. This seismic responsiveness enables Sant to see beyond what is immediately visible, without going explicitly into any realm of transcendence: the Arctic is seen behind Oslo, the Antarctic behind Tasmania: “South of here there's the sea, freezing /uninhabited islands to home in on.” Fossils are beneath Tasmanian verdancy; caves remain beneath the blue Mediterranean.
Some of Sant's best work is done in his narrative poems. In these, an intriguing motif recurs, that of a woman suddenly emancipated from the former conditions set down by a male partner and mulling her own new options. In “Old Woman in Apple Country” a woman surveys the apple trees that her now-dead and occasionally abusive husband had planted, feeling his presence in every apple that falls yet knowing that the cars rushing by on the road outside are part of a new world that has forgotten him. “Wife Of A Shooter” is a dramatic monologue spoken by a woman whose husband is out shooting. He ignores her as a person, yet if she were a bird she would be his easiest target: “Now flight primes me: / He'd notice first, on a bird, its ring.” In “Westbrooke Banks” Mrs. Irena Pembroke has taken the house once owned by her unloving husband, but belonging ultimately to her own ancestors, and turned it into an inn. She now runs the place, but depends on paying guests, of whom she “suspects the dark.” This is the last line of the poem, and injects a note of instability into what had seemed a static tableau. Sant is fond of using this device to air out his poems, as in the last poem in the book, “Nike at the megaliths,” where musings on ancient structures are interrupted by “a silent jet / splits the sky overhand, like a zip.”
Sant's accomplished, cosmopolitan style gains from repeated exposure. “Pleasure" has been a word much trivialized of late when talking about poetry, but Sant's poems genuinely provide that all-too-rare commodity. Without strain or overeagerness, they delight the reader at the same time as they shake up many of our expectations, including expectations they have initially generated. Tremors should make readers fully aware of Sant's achivement.