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Staircase wit befalls us all. Three women with first collections published later in life present very different positions on their lives. Isobel Robin has taken the measure of personal experience, laying it out with neither declamation nor anger. Dilemmas of the adults in her youth—spinster teachers, honourable secretaries—grant new meaning to Robin’s own life as she retells their stories. The past can be ‘an old cicatrice long healed’. While ‘Retirement Road’ amusingly observes the present:

Stout wives and husbands,
blindingly white, bend to bowl
intense as virgins
The poet also reports more grimly:
Garrulous widow!
She chatters to a mute shade

in another room.

Robin possesses the perceptiveness of Fanthorpe, the stoicism of Witting. Like them, she can say that ‘we who have passed through youth/should write poems/only to each other’ (‘Dreams and Visions’), as though poetry is an adult conversation, serious even when it is light. And how else can that conversation be held than through reflection on youth and experience?

Her steady control of forms is typical of a generation educated in this extra layer of complexity. Poetry’s age-long challenge of combining the emotional with the rational is met here with a calm, controlled voice. Like poems, ‘Ferries are for short journeys,/here to there/on the drifting difference of water.’ In her poem ‘Ferries’, Robin recounts with deceptive ease different boat trips. We learn quickly that the Antiron ferry ‘joins the road to Delphi/which is a place the same as nowhere else.’ We are told, ‘don’t expect all ferries to oblige with cliches’, a saying that is equally true of the poet herself, especially in her masterful conclusion where she wonders about ‘the last, mysterious ferry ... at Styx Wharf’ and hopes it will be like the Manly ferry: ‘An accolade of pines, and Mother/with picnic lunch and everybody’s swimming togs.’
How we reached such a conclusion is a journey in itself, best taken by reading the book. With wit, Robin comes to terms with the romantic nexus, the golden moon of her teens become ‘blotched’ and old. If she danced beneath the moon now, ‘what would the neighbours think?’

The colour and sweep of the seven seasons of the South-East are prime motivation for Penelope Alexander. Words imitate the small inflections of the natural world, as when ‘the dotterel runs in fleeting spurts’ and a dog charging down the beach has ‘the sun just in front of his nose’. Blake disliked Wordsworth en masse, but confessed delight in single images, lines of transience that we call haiku. Sometimes private experience should stay that way. But on occasion Alexander’s small notices get to a common depth:

Shaking shrimp nets,
spraying sun
in salty splashes,
morning young.
Unconscious morning,
unknown noon;
never evening.
Gone, too soon. (‘Morning Young’)

An idealised nature is resigned to a little realism. Enthusiasm, especially for the glories of the bush, prompts Alexander everywhere, though one is sometimes left wondering if enthusiasm is enough. It must not only be transmitted, it must be made to be felt. Overdependence on adjectives, so many clamouring, cluttering adjectives, can slow the pace and blow the meaning.

The human world is virtually absent from this poetry and one can interpret nature as consolation. One poem is even titled ‘My Friend, Acacia Melanoxylon’. A counterpoint is struck, though, in ‘As a Wave Moves’:

It’s going on, all the time
all year, and we
are only here
for a few days.
The shock—
that here it is
as it always was,
the waves coming in
sometimes spray wild
with churned sand grit;
other days, slow rolls,
thin pencils down-beach,
moving in line one after the other;
in, swing to the beach.

Resigned to transition and the inexorable patterns of the universe, the poet relishes brief time.

Lorraine McGuigan, on the other hand, knows she must face up to hard encounter with others. She delineates the transgressions experienced through growing up. Her brutal honesty in expressing anger, conflict and hurt is balanced by the need to understand. When McGuigan says ‘I would practice the art of forgetting/but there are no lessons, no guides’ she lays out the cause for her poetry. The painful, the haunting and the unavoidable force her into descriptive drama of her past; somewhere in the lines she slowly assembles the guides that were not there to help her at the time. It is a long exercise of retrieval.

The poet assembles a composite portrait of her mother and their traumatic relationship, fraught with confused loyalties, mistreatment and misunderstandings. Louise, the mother, is someone who ‘never looked lovelier’ and ‘could have been/a film star: rouge, lippy, mascara, high heels/& silky dresses made on her Singer treadle.’ Young Lorraine must comprehend the neglect of her own father, the abuse meted out by her mother’s lovers, and a life pushed to the limit. Such writing can be treacherous, because of its taboo breaking, but even more so because of the high risk of not succeeding, of betraying the past by poor expression. McGuigan unwinds the clock; she succeeds at linking trauma with residual memories. Her skills are controlled contrast and hearing the heated language of confrontation.

McGuigan is good at showing how poems often start at the final line. One about killing chickens ends, ‘They feel nothing, she told me,/wringing her hands again and again.’ This is not a collection of unrelieved angst though. She is brilliant with the objective correlative, so that in ‘Digging In’, an echidna

... digs deeper, nuzzles sand
like a creature searching blindly for the
But fear not hunger drives this self-
fortress even deeper into the dunes
And the place where her mother tried to write a thesis later in life
(‘Dissertation’) is
This room a topic in itself
a rented space replete with text
footnotes and bibliography.

Freud’s Back-Yard, Isobel Robin. Five Islands Press, 2002. isbn 0 86418 751 3, rrp $16.95
Gatekeepers to The Way: Collected Poems, Penelope Alexander. Grey Thrush, 2002. isbn 0 9580016 1 8, rrp $16.95
What the Body Remembers, Lorraine McGuigan. Five Islands Press, 2003. isbn 0 86418 748 3, rrp $16.95

Philip Harvey is Technical Services Librarian at the Joint Theological Library, Melbourne.




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