Simon West, ‘The Yellow Gum’s Conversion’ in The Sydney Morning Herald

Recoil and resurgence of bodies and branches

Kate Middleton reviews Simon West's The Yellow Gum's Conversion in The Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 2, 2013

Aidan Coleman's Asymmetry and Simon West's The Yellow Gum's Conversion are solid, attractive sophomore volumes from Australian poets. Coleman's poems look inward to the sick body and recovery of health, while West looks outward to the natural world; yet both ultimately offer meditations upon different forms of resilience.

Asymmetry appears in the wake of the poet's unnamed illness; the first section of the book deals with the passage from sickness into health. Coleman's struggle with a body in crisis is compelling: the familiar space of his own skin becomes strange, and Asymmetry refers to the ultimate fate of that body in which the previously dominant side finds itself “a slow arm fitted with a basic hand”.

Coleman's verse is marked by clarity: he tends towards a slender line, pared down to utter basics. The accretion of stark facts and images implies a larger narrative taking place in the gaps. 'In The Question', the poet finds himself in hospital unable to speak – instead producing “an empty/ comic bubble” – and he describes the scene:

Nothing but air

and the hum of the room.

The click

and dull bounce of machines.

Often making use of short, end-stopped stanzas, this precision suits the clinical space of the hospital, the terseness adding to the sense of urgency in each poem. Coleman's presentation of the alien space of the hospital is matched by the body-become-strange, as the body is often presented in parts only. In PEG Feed he writes:

The mouth a hangar: vacant, dry

unknown even

to the sweetness of water.

In Path he notes that “If each kneecap were a mouth it would be singing”, and the hospital machines themselves are animated in the presence of this sick body: the MRI machine is “greedy/ for brainmeat”. As the body comes imperfectly together, mortality mingles with re-emergence into the world (as in Checking Out: “Last meals now/ first meals”).

Coleman's re-emergence is marked, in the book's second half, by a series of love lyrics. The body, still the subject of the collection, now becomes the participant in erotic love. In Thinking Back from Where … he addresses his beloved, having found “the sound/ of your most secret vowel” and in The Wine Sipped Down … he characterises a kiss as “like a latch”. These love lyrics are intimate and open, expressing the wonder of love.

In The Yellow Gum's Conversion, Simon West returns constantly to the landscape and renders the scenes he explores as personal, though ultimately elusive. The yellow gum of the book's title is an example of just such a personal relationship to nature: when the tree apparently falls into “ruin”, West writes: “I took it personally./ I'd measured myself in that sapling's growth.” The personal affront West expresses is furthered by the echo he reads in the “bald twigs” that fingered the air like last gestures

that accused, I was sure,

more than the sky, me.

West's emotional responses to the tree's decline are brought into relief by the tree's own hardiness, as when “the tree came back with a flourish all its own”. With its rumination upon nature as the measure of one's own life, and the ultimate indifference of the natural world to such ruminations, The Yellow Gum's Conversion is exemplary of the poet's exploration of his world throughout this volume.

While trees, especially, mark a point of return in these poems, the natural world weaves its way into the poems in many ways. 'Out of the Wood of Thoughts', the first poem in the book, begins:

We woke with the crook of our arms empty.

Each morning the triple-cooing turtle-dove

would probe about our yard,

'coo-ca-cai?'

West, also a translator, hears the bird's call as a query in Italian: “cosi fai?” (“what are you doing?”). Hearing language in the bird's speech prompts him to ask: “What was it doing? What did it have to say?” The natural world has its own, untold (ultimately untellable) narrative. Birds question, trees measure and accuse, the “wing-flutter” of a wren is a “sign/ a stream/ to follow”; a dog “puts his nose to the air the way one/ trusts to another language”. These observations, however, form only glimpses. He reminds himself that “The mind lies”, in Out of the Wood of Thoughts, and yet in the book's final sequence, A Valley, he also commands it: “Cling, mind.”

At times fragmented, West's verse builds to what is knowable, presenting a complex relationship between the poet and the world around him. Like Coleman's Asymmetry, The Yellow Gum's Conversion evinces precision of thought and image.

Kate Middleton

Review not found at original source The Sydney Morning Herald

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