Poetry in lockdown: Recent work of Hermina Burns

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Well before the pandemic, the future for poetry’s slim volumes was looking far from healthy.  Last November, the threatened closure of UWA Press, one of the largest publishers of poetry in Australia, drew attention to the narrowing opportunities for emerging poets to make their mark.  The venerable Griffin Press, however, now under the Ovato umbrella, remains in the business of fostering ‘untried authors’.  

Proof of its commitment to getting a ‘high-quality product’ onto the market quickly are the attractively-printed debut volumes of Melbourne poet Hermina Burns, produced under the imprint of her own redoubtable Bristlebird Press. Her poems, dwelling in domestic space and in the expansive spaces of the natural world, speak directly to the cross-currents of our locked-down times: the longing for sea-change or tree-change played out in a buoyant real estate market, ‘back to nature’ exercise, the soul-searching generated by environmental degradation and climate change.

In her first collection, Against Separation Creek (2019), she takes consolation, during the separations enforced by loss and grief, in the wild beauty of Separation Creek on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Its companion volume, Bite of a Bluebottle, celebrates the intimacy of domestic space: its accidents and betrayals, the wisdom gathered in dailyness.

These are the two spaces of which Gaston Bachelard writes in his celebrated study, The Poetics of Space (1958): the space of intimacy and ‘world space’. In late 2020, Hermina Burns retains this dual focus in two further collections: Dodging the Relative, with its sharp and poignant insights into family life, and Crossing a Line, a return to her ‘triangle of state’, where ‘Bass Strait funnels Antarctic air/ driving cold fronts/ into the western district/after striking this wriggling edge of coast’. It is a coast rich in history, of ice-age tectonic shifts, of shipwreck and drownings.

The metaphor of the line — drawn across a mental map, crossed, intersecting in the charcoal and ochre traces of dancing figures, including, excluding — makes a unifying theme. It signals large preoccupations: with the loss of natural habitat and the life it once sustained, and the destruction of indigenous people and culture.

The title poem is a litany for ‘our country’s emblems’, kangaroo and emu, together with wombat, possum and wallaby, dying on the roads they tried to cross: ‘We call it road kill/ though it’s not the road/ that blinds their eyes.’ The emu is singled out in the deft little parable that opens the book, ‘the stick’. Family anecdote recalls a brother, stopped on the road one night by an old man ‘who cried/ ‘I’ve maimed an emu/ Can you kill it’. Recollection is traumatic: ‘the bird askew’, the wife ‘horror-struck in the campervan’, the brother looking about for ‘a killing stick/ reliable, stout, able/ to be swung/ repeatedly’.

Punctuating the story are questions; ‘who asks such a thing?’; ‘who asks can you kill it?’  ‘Who has killed it?/ The car, the old man, our brother, the road, the day, you, me?’ The nursery rhyme ‘Who killed Cock Robin’ is ironically invoked, though in staccato rhythms that contrast with the jaunty lugubriousness of the prior text. The stick, means of communication and celebration for Aboriginal people, here delivers destruction, while agency is questioned, problematized, denied. An indigenous viewpoint is suggested in the final lines: ‘Blood on the road/ that emu/ a big bird.’

Three impressive sonnet sequences form the book’s core, exploiting rhythm, lineation, syntax, and alliteration, to expand formal constraints. The first of fifteen ‘Bass Strait Sonnets’, (i) ‘drawing a line’, puns on the poetic ‘line’:

 

From Cape Otway, I’ve tried drawing

a line due south. There is nothing until

Antarctica. Draw one due west you almost

circumnavigate a globe wholly exposed

to the memory of white water wild where

Cape Otway drives its terrible chin south

into ocean roaring below

 

The precision of the mapping and the personal investment in direction-finding plays against the magnitude of distance and the ocean’s power, until the calming conclusion in an inland river, ‘remembering salt and its way home’.

In sonnet (viii) ‘in heavy water’, a well-known event is set in the cauldron of a king tide ‘up south from Antarctica’:

 

a Prime Minister wanted to work up

an appetite before lunch, parking the Pontiac

with his lover, wading into the actual and

marvellous boiling as if it remembered

taking the SS Cheviot to bed in ’87,

thirty-five souls lost. And this one his lover said

like a leaf being taken out…so quick and final.

Searchers tried too heavy water driven to reef,

Cliff-face and the sirens wailed, wailed.

 

The exclamatory hubris of ‘actual and marvellous’, and the all-too human appetites of the swimmer in heavy, and indeed hot, water, (personally, politically), make an enduring mystery. The triumphant sea never divulges its victim. It only mingles its wailing with that of the defeated sirens.

A final sonnet, ‘Looking Back’, returns in time and space to the loss of the beloved presence that brought such depth and intensity to the first collection:

 

I remember bull-ants and honey ants

everywhere building nests and the bush flies

so many, even the corks on strings around a hat

couldn’t keep them from my mouth

with you lazily swishing gum-leaves

about us as we stood in the sound of bees

under a red-flowering yellow gum and

along the back fence apple blossom

alive with pollinating…

Do you remember how it used to be?

 

Not even the absence of reciprocated memory can dim this natural world, summoned by its sounds, by half-rhyme and assonance, in the accumulating surprises of visual delight, self-replenishing, in constant motion, ‘building’, ‘flowering’, ‘pollinating’, ‘alive’. These are poems to nourish the imagination and call collective memory to account. 

 

A graduate of the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford, Jennifer Gribble is currently Honorary Associate Professor of English at the University of Sydney. Her book Dickens and the Bible: What Providence Meant, was published in February 2021 and she has recently reviewed for ABR, Quadrant, and The Conversation.

Main image: Portrait woman in protective mask standing at apartment window. (Malte Mueller / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jennifer Gribble, poetry, Hermina Burns, review

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you for bringing Hermina Burns to my attention, Professor Gribble. In a way she reminds me of the late Sir John Betjeman, who wrote about ordinary matters. Not every poet has to be a Milton and write something like 'Paradise Lost'. God forbid! The number of epic poems sunk without trace is legion.


Edward Fido | 16 October 2021  

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