Elizabeth Lawson, ‘Penelope’s Chairs’ in The Australian
Upton, Lawson, Pattinson and Lach-Newinsky display diversity in verse: Aidan Coleman reviews ‘Embracing the Razor’ in The Australian July 4, 2015
Since its inception a decade ago, Sydney-based Puncher & Wattmann has become a major publisher of Australian poetry. The four poets from its stable reviewed here, John Upton, Elizabeth Lawson, Jillian Pattinson and Peter Lach-Newinsky, are writing at their peak and their collections are a testament to the publisher’s nonpartisan commitment to diversity.
Lawson’s background as a literary scholar is evident in Penelope’s Chairs (75pp, $25), which brims with allusions to and embedded quotations from the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, Vaughan, Wordsworth and Hopkins. But the strongest influence on Lawson’s work is Dylan Thomas, as in The Fifth Parallel: ‘‘then the sun-struck // narrow path I chanced to choose, / and on my left the wall / of classic blackberry’’.
Although the great-niece of Henry Lawson, Elizabeth writes unapologetically in the romantic vein, and her poems about birds and landscapes often have a concentrated brilliance: ‘‘Honey-eaters your crewel work, / at gimlet-point you’re steel as // your eye. Carving cut-glass winds, / your alpine carol surfs a high-life.’’
Always lyrical, these poems are never merely pretty. Dugong Elegy considers the pernicious influence of humankind: ‘‘In this alien shimmer / our flesh shines rotten, / spines bend, snap, scintillate … as our ocean home … glitters but to die.’’ Nowhere Veranda, one of the best poems in the book, views the iconic space of the veranda through the lens of childhood: ‘‘[v]eranda-safe, we slept summer nights … this year’s dog getting / comfortable on boards, while frogs / tuned up down the creek and cocoons / of sleep reeled in flows of dark / under five stars’’. In a later section returning soldiers are remembered vividly: ‘‘In ’45 sudden young men stood / formal as photographs on verandas, / crumbling forgotten lamingtons…’’. Here the words sudden and formal establish a strange, new distance and the detail of homely lamingtons together with the unexpected verb ‘‘crumbling’’ do their quiet work.
As with others who write in Thomas’s line, the sharp edges of the particular sometimes suffer in the blur of lyricism. Writing in such a mode risks the inclusion of frivolous details for the sake of music, as in Absolutely Ordinary Rainbows: ‘‘our common or backyard rosellas // survey my tip-toe offering / of tip-top grain’’. At its most lyrical and fluent the voice is most in danger of drifting off into dreaminess but, because such brazen lyricism is rare in Australian poetry, it is also refreshing.