Katie Hansord reviews slack tide by Sarah Day

slack tide

by Sarah Day

Pitt St Poetry

ISBN 978-1-922080-04-2.


“Rules are what people think,
They aren’t a law of nature”. 

(House Like a Folk Tale, 42)

Deeply thoughtful and brilliant, Sarah Day’s most recent collection, slack tide (Pitt Street Poetry, 2022), deftly invokes the wider world of natural imagery and symbolism. A prolific and talented writer, currently living in nipaluna, Lutruwita (Hobart, Tasmania), Sarah Day’s first book was published in 1989. She won the Anne Elder award for a first book of poetry, and this most recent collection marks the increasing wisdom, strength and breadth of her poetic achievement. Like that of the “slack water”, suggested by the title, the poems traverse a kind of collective and introspective lull, such as that which exists between the tides coming in and going out. Day explains that this

“Slack tide, also known as slack water, is the brief lull in a body of tidal water when the tide is neither coming in nor going out. It can be a deceptive term since, although the surface water may appear to be almost stationary, it is no indication that the same is true below the surface; the various competing forces may give rise to a diversity of currents, some even flowing in opposite directions”.

Day situates the poetic ranges of emotional, intellectual and experiential engagement within the metaphorical spaces of both the deceptively quiet surface and the powerful underlying unseen currents, movements, and directional shifts. The metaphor of slack water brings into question natural and human confluences of contemplation and change. They move gently through shifts, rest and consideration, processing through cycles and directional pulls. The poems themselves are frequently very neat, measured and concise, frequently contained within a page or two yet with often wildly expansive, deep and radical conclusions. Through their careful organisation, concepts and epiphanies beyond control break through.

The volume contains six sections, opening with the poem ‘Transhumance’ (subtitled ‘Plague Year’) through reflection on the experiences of intense (yet often seemingly still and quiet) disruptions to Capitalist norms and the various veneers of ‘business as usual’ and ‘normalcy’ during the 2020 Covid lockdowns. The poem takes in these new landscapes, ‘In the absence of the city’s noise’ and the subsequent movement ‘as we follow one another / out of the old into the new’ (3). The title poem, ‘Slack Tide’ (4) muses that ‘this was a world we thought we knew / but it resembles nothing that we know, / insists we think like water at slack tide – / ambivalent, sensing whether to come or go” (4). There is a sense of return or recognition of what had always been obscured in all the noise and bustle, and its associated imagery that continues to surface here and there in ‘the right-wing headlines of last week’s news’, (12) or the sudden appearance of a ‘dented Coca-Cola can’(35). Like lapping water, or waves, eroding and changing what may have seemed immovable, the poems return again and again to questions of truth, particularly as it is found to be conflicting with contemporary cultures of hyper-individualism, catastrophic environmental degradation, and neo-liberal capitalist society. The poems move through and across landscapes, guiding the reader through richly visual evocations. 

Scenes shift from the School strike for Climate where ‘A young girl beside me at the busy crossroads / grips her placard: Save Our Earth its letters scrawl / unevenly…” (24) to the river ‘Ouse’, to ‘River Pans’, always insisting and bearing witness to the knowledge that the unending harm and destruction of what has been and has come to be regarded as ‘normal’, cannot continue.  In ‘House Like a Folk Tale’ this is articulated as the truth that “Rules are what people think / They aren’t a law of nature” (House Like a Folk Tale, 42). Human rules, and even the ways of thinking behind them, as distinct from laws of nature, assert their clear links to memory and violence, bloodshed, death, loss and war, as component parts of the larger environmental destruction. In ‘Everyday Losses’ the speaker shares these intimate familial memories of destruction and harm with us, the italicised casual banality of the phrase ‘During the war – so many of my father’s / conversations started off this way’ (47). In ‘Standish’ the memory of ‘Alice, my missing grandmother’, in an asylum, where ‘A husband then could lawfully erase life / could eliminate a woman’ (52). This backwards looking reflection on the past and the continuing gulfs between morality and law, of man-made rules as constructs and constructors of eliminations swirls into the lines ‘I write these words in anger / and in tenderness.  A harm was done’ (55). Speaking to the powerful emotional registers which arise and can be expressed through anger and grief, and through which both love and hope transfer and can transform. These poems hold a deep sense of love and hope, for humanity, the environment, and animals, as deep as their grief and rage at these systems and symptoms of depravity, through a poetic process of truth seeking, reckoning and accountability.

The emphatic overarching eco-feminist approach of the poems, entails a clear recognition and articulation of the interconnectedness of each of these poems and of the forces driving the various oppressions and horrors that are manifested and reflected within them. In ‘Pathologist’ a diagnosis of this crisis is made explicit, in a perhaps satirical reversal of the pathologizing language used by the dominant social order, recalling a sense of correction – or at least connection- to the false hysterical claims and incarceration within an asylum of the lost grandmother; this too was always environmental destruction:

Called in to diagnose a pathogen,
he plucks the feathers from the penguin’s breast,
inserts the scissor tip beneath translucent skin
and snips along the keel, but now undressed
the bird reveals its actual cause of death –
and all its fellows’ too on their rocky island in
the ice, hapless, fractured, bleeding from within,
found dead and dying on their nests.
The melting sea ice rippling on a tidal surge
has crushed each innocent swimmer-tobogganist
unaware. From errant waves emerge
a few survivors limping home from fishing trips,
broken clues with which to join the dots for passing ships.


These environmental impacts are situated in the same understanding that the environmental degradation is itself of course bound up in the conflicting rules, ‘what people think’, the upholding of unethical man-made laws of this exploitative system, and in turn, how these interact with the laws of nature.  This shorter, carefully constructed poem, perhaps like any other in this collection could, in many ways perfectly encapsulates a sense of Day’s stunning poetic skill and of the many intricate interconnections being continuously woven throughout the collection as a whole. The striking enjambment of the lines ‘…crushed each swimmer-tobogganist / unaware. From errant waves emerge’ link destruction, un/ awareness and the waves, with all the visually striking scenes offered. From this the dots we must connect emerge between constructed hierarchies of value and contrasting realities of value, in light of environmental, human, animal and spiritual destruction. 

This collection is beautifully written and elegantly, carefully deliberated, yet clear, unwavering and powerful. It is as tender in its articulations of grief as it is deep in its commitment to ongoing love through a poetics of relentless returns to the threads of truth, detail and care, amid vast seas of damage and unknowns. In the final section, the poem ‘Paradise’ reiterates this sense of hope in its refrain, ‘The many parts make up a green cohesion’. Similarly, in the poem ‘River Pans’, each poem connects to us and to the world of natural laws:

Think of the river’s waters
stirring stones on bedrock
round and round and round
into a geometry of perfection,
pans deepening over millenia –
the permanence of moving water,
the permanence of loose stones,
being the only essentials
for water to shape unyielding
dolerite to its own ends.
In such a way, a poem, fluvial
may run through time to move us,
finding itself briefly in the present
like the clear water with its pestles
at the bottom of this round hollow
in which you almost disappear. (87)

The waters, and the ocean as metaphor, crystalises too its incredible depths of time and space, of unknowns and mysteries, which are juxtaposed skilfully with the everyday, observable, the obvious, the ‘melting sea ice rippling on a tidal surge’, as the pieces we connect together in producing and sharing knowledge, through experience and understandings. All of these factors that must, once recognised and named as truths amid the quiet and the chaos, inevitably shift our adherences to old rules and collective directions, like a tide.

KATIE HANSORD is a writer and researcher living in naarm. Her PhD was completed at Deakin University. Her research interests include gender, poetry, feminism, disability justice, decolonisation and anti-imperialism.