Heather Taylor-Johnson reviews Wild by Libby Hart

WILD - front coverWild

by Libby Hart

Pitt Street Poetry

ISBN 9781922080387 (paperback)


To say that Libby Hart’s third book of poetry, Wild, was a highly anticipated one is to take into account that her first book, Fresh News from the Artic, won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize, while her second, This Floating World, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Awards and the Age book of the Year Awards. In my opinion, Wild is the best Libby Hart book to date.

Wild speaks of the animals: from the whale to the horse, from wolf to fox, and especially the birds. The poems are layered in their depiction of creature as majestic singular and as creature connected to humankind, heaven and the earth. Some poems deal with humans as the ‘wild’ or nature and the cosmos as the ‘wild’, but still there is a dependency on animals. The opening poem sets us up for the interconnection:

this is where the whirlwind stops.
Right here, among dark incantation.
Look around you, use those grizzly eyes,
for soon you’ll turn polar – a bulk of light
with clumsy paws. The blood-thud of constellation
shall roar inside your ears.

The poem is called ‘Ursa Major: Ursus arctos horribilis’, referencing both the constellation (which translates to ‘larger she-bear’, part of which forms the Big Dipper in North America and the Plough in the UK) and the grizzly bear. The title is of the heavens while the subtitle is the earth-bound animal. In this poem, one cannot live without the other, thus the subject and object become confused, morphing into one and the same.

The titles of all of the poems in the first section follow this twofold rule: the main title references the poem in much the way any title of a poem would, while the subtitle gives the Latin, scientific name to add complexity to the reading. The subtitles also work, however, to consolidate and simplify meaning. Take, for example, ‘Vespers: Hirundo rustica’, translated as ‘Vespers: Swallow’:

A spell of words
then a loosening of fault line,
black miracles spill from my breast.

One hundred swallows
ravenous and open-mouthed,
each menace of wing eye-loaded apparition.

Calligraphy of wildings,
auguries of the oldest longing,
dark lessons skimming the squat field.

The line between the hearing of vespers and the watching of birds is blurred in the first stanza, allowing the rest of the poem to exist in a complemented state of beauty and spirituality, so meaning becomes complete through interconnectivity. Consequently, there is such a bird as a vesper sparrow, making Hart’s choice of swallow an interesting one.

This first section of the book is called ‘Huginn and Muninn’, after the Norse myth of two ravens that fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. ‘Huginn’ is Old Norse for ‘thought’, while ‘Muninn’ is Old Norse for ‘memory’ or ‘mind’. In the book’s notes, Hart writes that the ravens ‘whisper the things they have seen or heard,’ and that the poems ‘are to be read as such whispers.’ When I ask myself what it is I like so much about Libby Hart’s poetry – and this would answer to all three of her books, but especially Wild – I have to answer that it is her power to whisper. She seems to do this in every poem, whether they are in the first section or the second (the later, ‘Murmurations’, maintains the theme and character of the book but loses the subtitle and gains some urbanness).

‘Stag: Cervus elaphus’ begins and ends with the imperative ‘Hold still’. This works to capture a place of tranquility at the start, where the stag is imposing, royal, superb. The repetition at the end forces us to take in that image again, and it as if we are inhaling one last time before we finish reading the poem, before the stag disappears. The mood then, it must be said, is like a whisper.

In the title ‘And then, and then’ repetition works as well, though this time we are left with an invisible ellipses, punctuation which suggests something further, though not of a new course and not definite, either. A whisper, rather than a shout.

‘Augury’ uses the third stanza as a whisper:

I have touched the lightning-struck tree.
I have spilt salt and broken mirror.
I have watched animals flee woodland.
And every treat grew to calamity—
to veiled message, winged riddle.

All of these actions suggest, as the poem says, calamity. However the word ‘veiled’ works with transparency while ‘winged’ works with wind, so the resultant calamity is not what one would expect. It is quieter. Working with strong action verbs throughout (‘spilt’, ‘broken’, ‘flee’) and ending with no verb at all leaves us with an image, rather than a scene, suggesting, again, something akin to a visual whisper.

In ‘Buffalo’, ‘a dark hale hollers’ more than once and in return, dead things like ‘bones’ and ‘bundles of pelts’ listen. The leading verb is piercing while the ensuing is muted, the dichotomous placement encouraging the quiet to triumph.

Even the cover of the book works with a whisper’s tone: the implication of the title ‘Wild’ in great contrast with its plain text and bottom-left positioning and the predominantly blank white canvas.

As with her other books, place is important, and though Hart is a fine example of a major Australian poet, there is very little ‘Australia’ to her poetry. Wild is dominantly an ode to Ireland and the animals, the birds, the nature and the northern stars the poet encounters there. Hart once told me that she feels as if she’s in exile from Ireland, unable to live in her own spiritual home because of citizenship. Some researchers of diaspora might find fault in that, but most poets probably won’t, home becoming metaphorically, rather than historically, positioned. Poetry allows these substitutes and thus opens up definitions. What I get out of Hart’s connection to Ireland is a deep and thirsty respect coated in a thick fog of longing. Her depictions of the foreignness feel local and her references to Irish poets are many.

In fact she references many poets in her work, quoting them, responding to them and remembering them, and the range is vast, from the Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, to the contemporary Sarah Jackson. So too does she write about writing and the creative process, though these poems are subtle in their motif as they reference mythology, folklore and history – another complex layering of interconnectedness: this one between poet and who came before.

This is another fine book from Pitt Street Poetry, and Libby Hart a perfect addition to the Pitt Street poets. I hope all involved are gearing up for a long shelf-life, commendations and future reprints.
HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON is the author of three collections of poetry and a novel, Pursuing Love and Death, HarperCollins.
She is editing an anthology of poems on disability, The Fractured Self.