Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw, Chris Wallace-Crabbe
(72pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

This latest collection from the Australian poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a varied and interesting book, wearing influences from D. H. Lawrence and Yeats openly. ‘A Vocation’, the opening poem, talks of ‘the dram of D.H.Lawrence deep inside me, / romantic as a thistle or a snake’, and several poems paint pictures of parched, bright landscapes full of lorikeets and kangaroos. The Yeats influence is explicit in ‘The Stone’s in the Midst of All’ in which the speaking stone casts a jaundiced eye over history, dismissing ‘speculative humans’ when viewed against the slowly-changing elemental panorama. These are traditional enough landscapes, then, full of Yeatsian terrible beauty, but it’s a mixture not seen much these days.

Other poems, however, suggest more interesting influences on Wallace-Crabb: ‘Meanings of Lowell’ anatomises Robert Lowell as the dominant poetic voice of the 1950s, especially the ‘family portraits’ famous from Life Studies. Here he is presented as a poetic ancestor and when the poet finally meets Lowell at the wake held for Randall Jarrell he concludes appropriately ‘I guess he must always have brooded on war’. Lowell is part of the much more recent, familiar poetic landscape, and a poem like ‘And Terror’ itself broods over the present as ‘two liberal centuries’ come to an end, Conrad becomes the startlingly prescient writer of the age and travellers unbuckle belts at airports in the name of ‘security and terror’, both equally ‘empty signifiers’. Dealing so directly with this contemporary situation, however, does tend to point the finger back at Yeats’ own political commitment and comments.

‘The Alignments’, quite a long sequence in the middle of the book, exploring Klee’s comments on lines and dots, isn’t quite as impressive and I do get the sense that Wallace-Crabbe has yet to settle on one particular poetic voice and style. I hope when he does, it is to write more poems like ‘One Step after Another’ and ‘A Summons in the Peak Period’, short metaphysical pieces akin to Charles Simic, mixing the profound and the banal:

           A phone is ringing in the cemetery
           loud enough to be from the Resurrection

Telling a Hawk from a Handsaw is a rewarding and generous collection from a poet still developing; as per Hamlet’s comment, he only seems mad when the wind is in a certain direction. There is a lucidity here that lives up to the title.

       © M C Caseley 2009