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Crossing the boundaries

This is a book of edges, of peripheries, wrestling with gravity, unseen (underground) menace, poisonings and movements across time and place. There’s a coherence in it, a dialogue between poems on things as diverse as the auguring yearly presence of the cold or flu in the house (‘quiet clearing of the throat/from a child’s room, close to midnight’), a Ferris wheel, a blowhole, and the elegiac rumination over the death of a neighbour. That coherence comes out of the desire to assert a positive view of a world so tainted by avoidable tragedies. There are always options to the poison. The book’s vision is not Luddite—ships and planes can be cherished and ironised simultaneously. The white of Antarctica both beckons and symbolises an unattainable absolute.

I might hesitate to call this book darkly spiritual, but I would certainly call it spiritual. There’s a caring in it—a sophisticated deployment of language anchored in the ‘real’, the actual, that drives the narrative of this tightly honed, compact book. Many poems have been written about visiting Antarctica, or imagining visiting Antarctica, but Day’s is of a darker hue: ‘A tawdry brass band extracts too much emotional mileage’, as ‘Antarctic Ships’ begins. She gives us the tension between what the mind perceives and the emotions experience, the desire to be present and absent, and the fetishisation of the seemingly exotic, the ship as something akin to that of Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; a perverse ferryman of the Southern seas:

The tilted vision has some allure—the thirty-degree list,
the bloodstopping notion of deep green fathoms
above which these tubs valiantly ferry

the little emblems of life itself.
Who knows mortality like a sailor?

There’s sympathy, even admiration here, but a recognition of an ironic sublime.

The lines are effortless and yet strangely cutting.

The outsider, the new arrival, comes via those temporary villages, towns, and cities, ships. Migration, transference, exploration, visitation, pleasure—the ship is a kind of conjurer’s trick, a delusion of connectivity and community. Day’s ship poems give movement and stasis in the one line: a sense of approaching something but still being part of, even caught in, what’s left behind. In others, the personae of the poems see themselves as the ship touches yet another port on its way to the symbolic vastness and emptiness. These experiences are overwhelmingly full, and it’s the intricacy, the myriad variations and disguises of nature and people that compel us through surreal landscapes where the imagined merges with ‘fact’, and language generates purpose in itself.

The truth of the poison is countered by the necessity of telling, of witness.

There is much conflagration and inferno in these poems. Images of fire and water abound, as an elemental struggle takes place. On one level, it’s of earth, wind, fire, and water; on another, it is the quintessential struggle between moral responsibility in observing and telling, and accepting what is. Going with the pleasure cruise. Irony is never far away, but it’s not bitter. When we read of planes passing overhead, observed from an aficionado’s point of view, as being like rosaries, there’s a double thrust: a technical admiration countered by the technological usurping of spiritual values. Do prayers travel higher than a Boeing 747?

The Ship is a book about time and chaos (theory). The movement from one era to another symbolised by the slow progress of the symbolic ship—which is told only as the passing of a few lines—is juxtaposed with the rapidity of flight on the other hand, right down to hours and minutes ... One end of the world one moment, the other end the next. Movement binds the collapse, the chaos together. It’s the glue. Culture becomes transposable, movement both transferring cultural knowledge and also depleting it. There’s not judgment here, but a vicarious observation and participation. Old connections are triggered by new experiences; memory is physical and walks with you down corrugated gravel roads.

In her examination and ethno-linguistic critique of representations and alterations to the natural, to the restructuring of nature through genetic modification and cloning, Day insists that ‘living’ is not simply a matter of having a similar or the same physical structure. The learned experience, the patterns and progress of inheritance, are disrupted. You can’t teach the recreated to be what it naturally would have been. And the genetically altered Salmon with its Trojan gene will come unstuck from the inside out. What has been lost outweighs what has been artificially ‘regained’. These are Miltonic issues of the Fall, with no Paradise available to regain. The satirical ‘Inaugural Speech at the Announcement of the Successful Cloning of the Thylacinus Cynocephalus’ posits:

Now, teach this individual shy reticence, teach it elusiveness in dry sclerophyll and casuarina, teach it native invisibility in the shadows of shearing sheds and out-houses. Teach it fear.

There is a commentary on occupation of land here. There is a commentary on the impossibility of playing the hand of God. The codes of existence itself are being tampered with and upset, and what we have is J.K. Huysmans’ 1884 À Rebours where nature is constructed, where real nature is merely the inspiration and stimulus for an artificial world. Day is ruthless in her critique, but the deftness of her language, its verbal twists and turns, its metaphorical base, lead to questioning rather than mere accusation. Yet there is real anger, and a real questioning of what religious belief is in such contexts. In ‘Oncomouse (R) DuPont’, the fetishisation of the living, the capitalist profit at all costs in the world of science-religion oppositions, psycho-babble and validation through this, the ultimate indifference to what it means to live, even be ‘created’, are all ‘dissected’:

Try telling the oncomouse
that a lab-bred predisposition to cancer
is in some way akin
to predestination.

And in the devastating poem ‘Lex Talinas’ the abuse and use of animals is templated against ideas of justice (natural) and law: ‘Did they savour the sop/of the vocabulary of punishment?’ and:

Better a wicked pig
than an aimless God
in a random universe.

There is a despairing humour, if that’s the word, for this. Day makes full use of repetition and semi-refrain, and in the thylacine poem, the Biblical and Whitmanesque anaphoric repetitions parody sacredness. Tradition is tampered with, genetically modified. A love poem becomes a Dadaist inversion of the Aubade, and a ‘romantic’ image is grounded by empirical data.

This is a book of struggle. It has moments of immense beauty, with Day turned to natural phenomena, the ‘human’ moment. There’s despair in the hubris of altering what is, with tampering with creation. But it’s a scientific book as well—judgment doesn’t fall blindly. The language of this tampering is entered and explored poetically. It creates its own directions. Sometimes possible readings might go against the purpose of the author, but Day creates digression through a sharp, intense linguistic register—she knows that words have so much internal pull, such energy, that as hard as she works to contain them, they will escape. This gives The Ship a life of its own.

This book of diverse poems is like the engine room of an ocean-going liner, the Rolls Royce engines of a jumbo, the Robert Stevenson M5 train belching smoke, and the most acutely realised moment in nature actualised. There’s no simple answer. This book does not seek to answer, however, but to explore. Read it again and again, it’s eerie to realise how many ‘subterranean missives’ there are. She reads the science, she knows the edges: she looks over them as we look with her. She asks the necessary questions.       

The Ship, Sarah Day. Brandl & Schlesinger, 2004. isbn 1 876 04059 9, rrp $22.95

John Kinsella’s most recent volume of poetry is Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems. He is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of English at Kenyon College, Ohio.



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