Rose Lucas reviews Crow College by Emma Lew
Crow College: New and Selected Poems
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
This year, Giramondo has released a new selection of the poems of Emma Lew. An notable poet in the Australian poetry scene for over twenty years now, this edition includes poems from Lew’s two previous collections, The Wild Reply (1997) and Anything the Landlord Touches (2003). Both these collections made an impact: The Wild Reply won the Mary Gilmore award and The Age Poetry Book of the Year in 1998; Anything the Landlord Touches was the Victorian Premier’s Prize winner as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize for poetry in 2003. To be able to revisit some of the key poems from these collections is both to keep them alive within the fabric of Australian letters and to introduce them to new readers. These previously published poems are supplemented by a treasure trove of new poems – some of which were also published in Vagabond’s Rare Object Series, Luminous Alias (2013) – which demonstrate both continuities and new directions in the work of this influential poet.
As Bella Li notes in the Introduction, Lew’s poetry, in all its moods and stylistic manifestations, takes us to places of strangeness; her poems tend to be inflected with uncertainty, refusal of resolution, the hauntings of people, places, feelings and ideas which are only traces, wisps of possibility. This means that a reading of Lew’s poetry can be a vertiginous experience, a journey of moments of beauty but also profound discomfort. Lew’s work foregrounds poetry’s ability to evoke and to suggest – rather than to pin down – and in so doing, to take the reader on unexpected paths of sensation. In the poem ‘Holes and Stars, for example, we are taken into a space where an interior world, finely attenuated, intersects only tangentially with the chimera of an external world:
I just got my memory back.
Few loons and I would live
in a corner at the airport,
not for the sequence
but the agony we had to be,
running off with the money
and faking our own deaths.
Will technology make me remote?
I don’t know where I am,
I never know what’s going to happen.
Alongside the speaking voice in the poem, the reader is led to inhabit this knife-edge of perception, this dizzying perspective of a self on the brink of dissociation from itself, yet still able to prise open windows of insight.
Lew makes use of mythic tropes – again, not specifying, but evoking. A poem such as ‘The Wild Reply’ provides a different and unsettling use of the image and associations of fire, for example, with its capacity to devour as well as illumine and maybe even provide a segue from the prosaic to the extraordinary, even the explosive:
I must not touch fire
Myth fire, adder’s fire
Sensual and deaf
The deep, swift fire
The smelting and the forging
I have flame and lack nothing
Beast in my footsteps
Light up, burn
This array of poems also shows Lew’s technical range. Her work utilises a range of stanza formations and groupings to pull the reader through different rhythms and patterns of meaning, different clusters of emphasis and image. As well as in the examples above, this extends to the prose poem form, as in a poem such as ‘Bounty,’ where uncertainties of love are expressed in a claustrophobia of line and seasickness:
These precious months have been like the withered rose. I say to myself that I am now suffering. Absence binds us, and in the fallow badinage of a ship’s deck, my former calm and piety are returning. O my darling, the rigging swarms. Help me out of this blind life. The shouts of gulls, the groping reefs…
‘Anything the Landlord Touches’ makes use of the form of the pantoum, where lines are repeated and varied, as one four-line stanza blends into the next – almost a signature style for Lew’s work. The circularity of this form, with its seasickness of echo and variation, the rise and ebb of different and same, both provides a kind of ballast in the wash of feeling and imagery as well as echoing the tenuousness, the almost-ghostliness of what is present, subsides, returns – only to slip away again:
I break things because I am afraid and I spend my time repairing
It’s almost the expression of love
I found these beautiful machines abandoned here
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
It’s almost the expression of love
To hunt, to seduce, to deal with a stone
Sometimes there is nothing to inherit
Footprints on the path that leads to the house
The ‘New Poems’ continue the style and mood of the earlier collection, while perhaps becoming somewhat bleaker in tone. The ambience created by these poems remains at an edge of external threat and a fear of an internal collapse of meaning. Although the ‘speaker’ of the poems is not usually identified, a form of dramatic monologue often takes us – glancingly – into someone’s life, someone’s particular story. In ‘A Crushing Spring,’ for instance, the poem provides an unsettling movement from attempts at objective perspective to interior confusion and suffering:
People pity me for marrying a blind man,
but I possess a small oval face.
We travel in the carriage with the ordinary passengers.
Switzerland, so the water is very clean.
I behave like an angel when he stumbles in the garden.
The summerhouse is on fire.
Do you see how it is, how I am bound here?
I feel so perfectly sure the final blow has been struck.
Similarly, without explicitly naming, ‘Freight’ suggests the Nazi movement of people like inanimate cargo, ‘Relocated to the east/in autumn, but is that so important?’ (p. 97). The technique allows us to inhabit a kind of protracted present experience with the speaker in the poem, a view from the train – before it has a name, a history, a moral judgement: ‘The forest runs along the border…And/the moon is in the heavens,/fighting to get free when held.’
Once again the pantoum form is used in a number of poems to evoke a cycling which has a number of effects: it stitches a kind of structure into what might otherwise be an emotional maelstrom, while also enacting a process of repetition and return which haunts and disrupts. In ‘Poem’ (p.100) for example, while the opening and final line might suggest some kind of containment or border around the problem– ‘Adultery fucks a family up as much as poverty’ – the recurrent lines signal pain’s ongoing disruptions:’That’s a lot of hatred from a mother,’ ‘It was like an acid eating into me, ‘Can’t stop love from doing its damage,’. Or in ‘Avalanches’ (p. 114), the line ‘I travelled like a curse’ is played across a dreary and icy landscape of violence and threat, again embodying a fearful overlapping in internal and external malaise.
While individual poems can evoke a luminosity of image or feeling, Lew’s is in general not an easy poetic. It is however a courageous one, one willing to explore beyond more straightforward limits of inside and outside, what makes meaning and how meaning might collapse in strings of dissociated feeling and observation, forcing us to consider the ways in which we might ‘travel like a curse’ across the terrain of our lives as well as the ways in which the articulation of our experiences and the building of the poetic line might also construct the possibility of connection.
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and academic at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (UWAP 2013) won the Mary Gilmore award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.