Deft Surrogates For Speech

Judith Bishop (84pp, £9.99, Salt)

     You and I, we are too far
     from fire now: the chimney-pots
     have driven out their smoke,
     and stood alert for its return,
     but flames are rare, or else
     they are disaster
                      [from 'After the Elements']

These opening lines from Australian poet Judith Bishop's debut collection announce that it will be no realm of colloquial anecdote. Instead the poems create mood through strong imagery and an intensely lyrical imagination. The collection is split into five distinct sections, but recurring themes and symbols echo throughout.

'Desert Wind' introduces most of them within a few lines - wind (sometimes in the form of breath or spirit), birds and animals, bees and honey, the speech of nature, the power and limits of utterance. It employs a fluent, winding syntax, panning across its scene, engaging all the senses, bringing the overlooked and inanimate to life:

                                                                   in a desert,
     a random bird alights, hoarse-throated after days of luckless questing
     for a moth or spider that has cellared spring rains in its body, so honeying
     the juices of itself: and when startled by a boy skating down the lane a moment,
     she is swallowed by the wind, as a rasping draws nearer on the dirt
     and turns articulate,
     becomes the shuck, shuck
of a snake tasting engine oil and frost, as if astonished
     how far it has gone across terrains...

The energy of Judith Bishop's writing can be seen in 'cellared spring rains,' an entirely unexpected phrase, perfect to describe the action of a spider, which is then juxtaposed with 'honeying/ the juices of itself' - the dankness of cellar, the sweetness of honey, all one from the bird's point of view. On rare occasions, I felt plainer words would have been preferable to the surprising ones she reached for but, far more often, I admired the refusal to settle for a worn phrase and the resonance she obtained by her vivid word-choices.

I felt the same about her use of the poetic line, as if no line was ever broken arbitrarily. The short line in 'Desert Wind', 'and turns articulate,' might seem strange buried in such a long-lined poem, but its isolation emphasises the articulacy of the natural world, an important theme in this book. In 'The Shatter Rooms', the inanimate speaks to the poet as powerfully as a word:

     High bones of the plane tree,
     lighter by the hour; leaf,
     fallen crosswise on the clover
     like a lintel; rain-soaked lilacs...

     All my deft surrogates for speech.

A particularly haunting example of this comes in 'Still Life with Cockles and Shells', about a 17th century Italian painting. The painting appears still and silent, but nonetheless:

     Life breathes in this painting like a child
     pretending not to be awake

It's night. A parrot watches, ships wait, five birds lie dead in a wash of 'unearthly light' which 'limes the sunken feathers.' It makes the poet think of a post-Apocalyptic world. It made me think of a frozen Tomas Transtršmer landscape in which everything is empty or absent:

     Or else the world has ended, but in
     some other way;

     and the parrot turns to give her
     human greeting to the dawn.

That's a dramatic image of desolation, a surrogate for speech, one of the loneliest pictures I can imagine, a ghost of human language. The poem is well-paced, structured mainly by couplets which step tentatively, but inevitably, to their desperate climax.

A sequence concerning Doňa Marina, an Aztec woman who was translator, interpreter and mistress to Cortes during the Spanish conquest, is spread through the book in small sections. Language, speech and breath are again vital themes, as Doňa Marina's linguistic ability was vital to the conquest's success. Her resolve, doubts, fears, and betrayals are dealt with using internal monologue and a chorus of two voices, with an almost liturgical flavour to some sections. The conclusion proves that Judith Bishop can write dynamic narrative as well as she can do lyric. 

The image of wind is important. The first section of the collection is prefaced by a quotation from D. H. Lawrence, 'Not I, but the wind that blows through me!' Many of the poems are concerned with wind, breath and speech. Anything can become a vehicle of communication: returning to 'Desert Wind', the sound of the boy's skates and the shuck, shuck
of the snake are a kind of language.

In 'Rabbit', the narrators wander the night 'searching for a tenderness, an innocence at birth,' but the rabbit they follow is killed by a sparrow-hawk. Judith Bishop creates empathy for the rabbit's fate, which is very human in its implications. It ached 'to occupy/ the whole damn bubble of the moment of each movement' and suddenly its life is taken. The close is devastating:

                                                                ...with your hushed ballet of spring, you
     performed the coiled rites you have taught us tonight: showed our ropes of matter cut
     by the one puppet master, hanging in his own winds.

The tension holds taut beyond the final line. The traditional image of God as puppet-master, above creation, is subverted. The 'deity' of this poem is entangled with the natural world, which cuts our strings on death, but remains at the mercy of its own random whims, symbolised by those winds.

This collection is an absorbing read, multi-layered and affecting. It contains poetry full of ideas but never strays from human experience. The desperate search for hope, joy and truth in the face of indifference and death is played out within recognisable landscapes, which Judith Bishop's language transforms and renews. Her poetic method is similar to what the human voice does at the end of 'Desert Wind':
it 'knows how to bind whatever's still,/ and for long enough to touch.' If her poems bind, they do so  temporarily. They don't freeze reality into settled meaning like a snapshot. They pause fleetingly, just long enough to touch.

      © Rob Mackenzie 2009