Margaret Bradstock reviews This Woman by Adrienne Eberhard
by Adrienne Eberhard
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
As the collection’s title suggests, This Woman is a book of poetry situating the poet within her world. It is female poetry, confessional poetry, celebrating motherhood, children, love, nature and its fecundity and, above all, the significance of place, “where what matters is/ something other than us” (p.66).
The prevalence of Tasmanian landscape in the poems is strong, and conjures up an awareness of the island’s history and geography. “Littoral” links the present, encapsulated in the figures of the poet’s sons, with her own responses to the coastal landmarks:
These two, mushrooms under the faded indigo
of their hats, are the sign posts of her days,
the far-reaches of her paddock marked by
their small figures running……………………
histories, pulling her
like the way they lift their heads to watch
the finger-winged passage of a sea eagle sailing the air,
its territory marked by the nest of young and the far gum tree.
The sequence “Mt. Wellington Poems” goes further back into the past, 10,000 years and more, to the time of Gondwana land’s geology and plants: “This could be airy ground in Africa,/ the cloud-capped Mountains of the Moon” (p.61). A response to the Mt. Wellington Festival of 2002, in collaboration with poets and scientists, the sequence teaches respect for the native flora and an awareness of its history: “This mountain’s history is collection: flanks scoured,/ plants sampled, examined, described and stored” (p.59). The concept is extended and deepened, both literally and metaphorically, in “Managing the Mountain (or Mapping Time”:
yet mapped, on the table before us, the mountain shrinks,
reduced to kilometres of fire-trail, to the homogenisation
of trail head, sign, specification.
What’s being mapped is impact,
the scars of over-use.
A further poem celebrating landscape and its links to the human condition is “Mt Field.” Here the only scars are created by nature, and we are given a glimpse of a prelapsarian world. Death and life, whether of seasons or snowgum limbs, are natural processes in this poem. While the scenario is beautifully evoked, the end-point of anthropogenic destruction is not touched upon, as it might well have been in the contemporary climate. Likewise, “Recherche Bay” pays tribute to the conceptual fecundity of Lahaie’s garden and the imagined response to it of ship’s steward, Louise Girardon, but makes no mention of the Government-approved road and logging project that threatened the site of the garden as a historic feature in 2005.
Two poems, however, might be said to go beyond the idyll of nature undisrupted and extend their horizons in the direction of ecopoesis. The first and most important of these is “Trust,” dedicated to the poet’s husband, his adolescent naming of fish and fauna elevating these to “friend,” a passion later shared by his sons. Now, in an endangered world:
He reads the latest reports, insists they only fish
in waters swept by Southern Ocean currents,
while each day, his sons salvage bones and fossils,
shells and starfish to line their bedroom window sill,
pulling the river one wave closer each time
until at night it laps at their ears and they sleep,
their world too small yet for pollution, poison, extinction,
knowing only renewal, their trust huge in his hands.
In “Owls,” “the insolent slow flap/ of an owl across the bitumen’s sinuous curve” assails the persona driving home at night
she has not seen owls here for three years
their haunting of the dead gum a memory she links
to a time when the future was a bowl of blue sky
and infinity was the rest of their lives
tonight a second owl launches into the night in front of her
and she understands she has not lost the future or the past
it is here this feather-claw-beak moment
that she has found
Notable also, by its near-absence, is the issue of Aboriginality in Tasmania’s black history. There’s a reference to a rock-wall hand imprint on p.1, to “native women in this Edenic/ world” (p.57), but neither the harmonious relations between the d’Entrecasteaux expedition and Lylueqonny natives in 1792, nor the horrific massacres of 1824-31, receive a mention.
When it comes to invasions of the landscape of the human body, however, the poet is more confronting. “Breast Strokes” provides a fine commentary on the representation of women’s breasts by traditional male artists, with a contemporary bombshell in the closing stanza on Rembrandt’s contribution:
a silent time bomb: her breast − a million breasts − flowering
with deadly beauty, the cells that lie, tucked
and hidden, shaping the future into which, oblivious, we sail.
Almost a conceit, the poem progresses through repetition of key words, through images of flowers and sailing, to a conclusion which powerfully reverses their expected significance. The centrality of these images is continued in the title sequence, “This Woman”:
She’s not interested
in figureheads, their breasts and tresses
a form of treason, it’s more the way a yacht lies under sail,
its ability to displace, and sometimes plane,
as astonishing as flight.
A boat knows its own destiny;
this is the most disturbing thing of all,
that in its relentless fracturing
of the blue meniscus that surrounds her,
a boat is more certain of the futurethan she can ever be.
There is the starkness of recognition, encapsulated in spare, hard-hitting language:
The surgeon will take his knife
and chase the trail of spoor, cut and probe, then sew
and rectify. Her breast will follow the knife’s hollowing,
all pertness spent in the sharpness of steel,
falling into itself, as if trying to salvage something.
and the images of violation: “nothing has prepared her for this…blood cells bones clawing each other/ civil war,” followed ultimately by defiant hope: “belief, in everyday miracles;/ anything, the paper nautilus tells her, is possible.” Reliant on the importance of ‘the small personal voice,’ “Breast Strokes” and “This Woman,” taken together, provide one of the strongest poetic statements in this collection. By contrast, “Maze” is an afterthought, its frame of reference from legend and fairytale unconvincing.
Eberhard works best when re-creating the reality of her world, on its own terms. The poem “Vision,” about her son’s colour-blindness, provides an example of this technique. Images and metaphors arise naturally from the subject-matter:
In my son’s classroom the children’s postcards
line cupboard doors, each asked to draw
what they see: 28 blue vases holding flowers,
the 29th, pink.
the cones of his retina
white-washed into seeing the world awry.
In his drawings, he’s a stickler for detail
as if in its sharpness and accuracy
his brain balances out chroma-deficiency,
allowing 3D perspectives, upside-down views,
a vision unfettered by distance and the quotidian.
Technically, the poet exhibits a penchant for sequences which allow her to explore different aspects of her subject-matter. Some of the images that arise are startling, metaphysical in their implications (“Walking in the wind, it seemed/ as if the world was a knotted/ ball of wool unravelling,” p.3; “This hut is a harbour, hooked to the mountain,/ scoparias and waratahs burning red candles,” p.68; “This rib you found, leached like driftwood/ and light as pumice stone,” p.70). Many are maternal, based on her awareness of the female body and its responses (“the net the fishermen pull/ is full of grief: the stilled voice/ of a new-born child,” p.21; “it’s a journey into time, when the mountain/ was a child sleeping in its mother’s womb,” p.66). Sometimes, this approach results in over-contrivance (as in the poem “Maze”) or the possibility of a clichéd central concept (“Setting Out,” “Bird Song,” “Seeds”). Overall, however, language in the collection is wielded with style and precision, contributing to the shock of recognition that is poetry’s function:
are like this: when you come across
the right ones, their electric stab
is like stepping into the ocean,
being broken and made whole again,
drawing a body to a different realm
where uprights and verticals are gone,
where sky and water stream in,
jettisoning all the mind’s freight.
(“The Words,” p.43)
Margaret Bradstock has five published collections of poetry, amongst which are The Pomelo Tree (awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize), Coast (2005) and How Like the Past (2009). She has recently edited Antipodes, the first anthology of Aboriginal and white poetic responses to “settlement” (Phoenix, 2011). Margaret was Asialink writer-in-residence at Peking University in 2003 and co-editor of Five Bells from 2001-10. She is now on the Board of Directors for Australian Poetry.