John Watson, ‘Erasure Traces’ in The Sydney Morning Herald

Erasure Traces: Collected Works Volume 2

Reviewed by Sarah Holland-Batt, in The Sydney Morning Herald September 4, 2008

“In nature there are few sharp lines,” the American poet A. R. Ammons famously wrote as he observed the shifting dunes, grasses, seabirds and tidal life at Corsons Inlet, a stretch of the New Jersey coast.

Those transient “events of sand” gave Ammons a model for his own poetics: walking along the shoreline, he felt “released from forms,/ from the perpendiculars,/ straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/ of thought” and decided to rely on the “flowing bends and blends/ of sight” instead.

Ammons's conception of the natural world as an inconclusive, ever-evolving event chimes strongly with the work of John Watson, an Australian poet who, like Ammons, is an experimentalist witha roving naturalist's eye.

Watson's most recent collection, Erasure Traces, comprises just three extended landscape sequences written over 20 years, and is concerned with the question of how to transcribe what Watson calls the “incident” by making “an inventory/ of the arbitrary”, as he says in Pastoral.

The volume opens with its title sequence, a meditation on the flux and erasure of language – “that expectation of fading/ Which the natural world observes so well” – via the figure of a river:

I for one would welcome a neap tide

Of fresh word hoards to flow

Over all that has so far passed

For discourse

Watson's river, like T. S. Eliot's Thames, is a susurrus of pre-existing voices; Donne and Adorno surface, only to be “laterundo[ne]” by the erasures eimplicit in the water surface itself.”

The poem moves by a series of forward and backwards steps – a kind of ebbing – wherein Watson records an observation only to erase or revise it away a few lines later. After describing a kingfisher's breast feathers as “almost the shade of chestnut”, the poet immediately questions his choice of “the decorous 'shade of chestnut'/ And the hopelessly arch 'almost'”. This ironic self-awareness characterises much of the book.

At times, Watson's propensity to draw attention to the poem-as-object can be testing, particularly in Frieze, an ambitious “landscape poem with footnotes” that attempts to render its terrain by a kind of linguistic pointillism. Fragments of man-made and natural geographies are splintered together like mosaic tiles: “Excavations tea urn biscuits stolen by birds/ cucumber slice sun complicit grass trees.” Yet the footnotes work in a distracting counterpoint to the poem by discussing both its formal features and its theoretical backdrop.

Watson is at his best when his poems embody, rather than expound, his poetics, as in the earliest of the three works, At the Onset of Turbulence. Comprising 11 poems, it moves from an ars poetica in Manifesto to a response to Les Murray's The Rock Pool, an elegy for Laurence Olivier, and a brilliant meditation on the American painter Edward Hopper's Eleven AM. Here, Watson's painterly gaze is reined in to superb effect; when given breathing space, his images are both cinematic and intensely graceful:

A cyclist, in yellow, dismounts

And looks towards the orange-trees, dark by the pool,

And the whole morning raises itself without visible support,

Fields and roads making their way towards noon.

Sarah Holland-Batt

Read this review in The Sydney Morning Herald

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