Natalie Owen-Jones Reviews Storm and Honey by Judith Beveridge

Storm and Honey

by Judith Beveridge

Giramondo Press, 2009

ISBN 9781920882563







Storm and Honey is Judith Beveridge’s fourth major volume of poetry. Her first two, The Domesticity of Giraffes, and Accidental Grace, established her as one of the finest voices in Australian poetry, and her third, Wolf Notes, gave this status an enigmatic depth and lustre. In many ways Storm and Honey reminds us of what an important book Wolf Notes is. Within this more recent work continues a quality of breath and line and a confidence with subtle states of mind that was first given to us in those poems. More specifically, the idea of writing a sequence through the lens of a fisherman and documenting life on a working trawler continues an interesting theme in her writing. In ‘From the Palace to the Bodhi Tree’ in Wolf Notes, and the ‘Buddha Cycle’ in Accidental Grace, Beveridge also writes from within character. The poetic speaker in the Bodhi Tree cycle is the Bodhisattva, the sequence imaginatively following his journey, physical and mental, from his life as a prince to the moment when his search for enlightenment is about to be fulfilled.  In ‘Buddha Cycle’ it is the monks and laypeople surrounding the Buddha’s life – many of whose stories are drawn from the Pali cannon itself – who speak the poems, representing the Buddha himself as an effective absence, shining at the centre of their experiences.


Yet despite the sequence, on first glance, ‘Driftgrounds: Three Fisherman’, marks an abrupt turn in Beveridge’s poetic. Moving a long way from the non-violence and search for ultimate peace of the Buddha cycles, these poems do not temper the brutality of fishing – the suffering, the stench and death that are a part of that life. Her language revels in the harsh, visceral opportunities offered through the exploration of the fishermen’s lives. Its beautiful meditations, however – ‘Morning, up river’, ‘At the Inlet’, for example – do represent fishing’s other side, the contemplative moments offered by a life on water. Driving both of these, at least outwardly very different themes in her work, is the importance of experience and the acknowledgement of the reality of suffering to Beveridge’s poetry. The importance of bodily experience to the life of the mind finds its own expression in poetry and she invites us, in this volume, to think of this expression as refiguring and bringing into focus far away worlds: the fishing life, sea creatures, the minds of others.


Experience has a hold on this volume’s poems, in the way its words feel on the tongue and to the eye and this animates more than the violence of trawler life. Her poems range wildly across language through sound and ingenious simile and her playfulness – more acute in this volume than in others – acts in a similar way to the creation of her fisherman and her portraits of other men of the sea. It offers a lens through which to view this other, and ultimately our own, world. The opening poem announces the volume’s fascination with sound as it describes the awful scene of a child’s body being removed from inside a shark:


We heard the creaking clutch of the crank

as they drew it up by cable and wheel

and hung it sleek as a hull from the roof.


The poem offers a glimpse of the nature of the sequence’s three main characters, the narrator, Davey and Grennan:


                                                            The limb’s

            skin had already blanched,  a sight none

            of us could stomach, and we retched,


            though Grennan, cool, began cutting off

            the flesh in knots, slashing off the flesh

in strips; and then Davey, flensing and


flinching, opened up the stomach and

the steaming bowels.


Positioning the narrator as the more sensitive one, the writing moves from nauseating detail to cold fact. Speaking of the gulls overhead, ‘Still they taunt us with their cries’, he says, as ‘Grennan with a tool / took out what was left of the child’ (15). 


This first poem sets a shadow of death across the volume. The next, ‘The Trawlers’, speaks more generally about the fishermen’s working life, and introduces writing, language, poetry itself, as another of the sequences most insistent themes:


The broken northern cliff face and tidal rips still

            driving across the rocks. The lighthouse on the headland

            like a valve that blew its incandescence decades ago.

            The trawlers are slanting, moving across thick dossiers

            of water, the wind dictating, urgent, demanding


            a copybook hand. (16)


This is not the only time the speaker describes weather in writing metaphors, nor has a particular focus on time. Beveridge often uses intriguing and quite beautiful constructions where, for example, something is ‘still’ occurring, something else ended a long time ago, and ‘soon’ something else will arise. It is a persistent awareness in her poems that deserves more attention than I can give it here, and I suspect it is tied to her recurring figures of the moon and weather. It opens her poems to endless possibility. The language and poetry metaphors are more specific to this sequence (there are many playful references to Octopuses and their ink) and drive, I think, its intricate inner logic that points not so much to its being made up of poems about fisherman as painting portraits of fisherman-as-poets. The speaker says in ‘Inlet’:


            I know my stroke will lose rhythm in the brown        

                        waters of the cove, but now I make

            curved passage across the bay where even Grennan


            or Davey on the far-off jetty, their reels spinning

                        like a sudden volley of insects

            cued by the dusk, might, just possibly – when

                        they come into the presence

            of still waters – find something beautiful to say. (23)


And after this mention of beautiful speech, the next two poems speak of the other two fisherman, Davey first, then Grennan, in their own adventures towards poetry – in the case of Davey, a percussive adventure in sound: 


                                    …I like a reel to sound as if it ground shell grit,

                        I like it to bitch-box its hisses, I like the full


                        clack and brattle and not just have it chitter

            like a sorry crab. (‘Tackle’ 24)


In ‘The Knot’, Grennan’s tying a knot is like ‘signing a run of verses, / or psalms in the deaf-dumb alphabet’, the narrator marvelling at how ‘hands [that] have felt the cold brutality of the sea / and lugged nets of killing across the shallows, can make / the tiny twists and turns and conjugate beauty’ (26). If these poems, or even the sequence itself, can be thought of as portraits of the fishermen as poets, it would not be surprising to realise that many of the sequence’s other poems, ‘Lingo’, ‘Delancy’, and ‘Weaver’, for example, are also portraits of the characters the fishermen come across at sea. ‘Capricorn’ is another, the final poem of the sequence and, I think, its finest. It reminds me that the book is dedicated to her son, and opens with the metaphor of a lens –something the sequence offers us pervasively, as I mentioned earlier, through its personas and its language:


            Through the end of an old Coke bottle he tracks

                        the flight of a petrel until it is tattered by

            sea wind and another blurred mintage of the sun.

                        Along the pier he hears the men with their

            reels, with their currency of damp sand. His rod

                        quivers, weighted not with fish, but with


            the names of storms: Harmattan, Vendavales,

                        turbid winds running the vanguard of

            dangerous straits.


Do these lenses refigure reality or make it clearer? In tune with childhood, here, it becomes a portal for the imagination: ‘But now the bottle is a horn,’ the speaker says, ‘into / which he pours so much breath’. Closing the sequence with a lovely symmetry by recalling the child of the opening poem, these lines open into the free potential of the mind, where the first closed onto mortality:


                                                      Ah, but you know, if

                        you were to take this child’s hand; if you

            were to keep his gaze in yours and wait for

                        each circulation of his breath; if you were

            to watch the pirated scenes of daydreams

                        play out through a windfall of glass, then


            you’d see the copper-coloured sun. You’d walk

                        this beach a long time with your thoughts

            trading in weather and wind, the petrels keeping            

pace with the rakish lines of dreams

            sailing in with the clinker-built storms.


This freedom is a condition of a literary imagination, the poem goes on to say. It is its weapon to ward off death, although this manoeuvre reminds us of death’s ubiquity:


                                                            No, the world

            would not be a wave repeating its collapse,


            but whatever mintage of story a boy can find

                        among fish scales, sand and the common

issuance of wind; a boy who knows nothing

                        of the linkages between storms; nor of

            the men, yet, who log weather’s quick decay

                        onto gauges of abuse; who knows nothing

            about paying for that old voyage toward death. (60-61)



The last poems, collected under the heading ‘Water Sapphire’, are often rhapsodic, celebrating poetry’s ability to circle and illuminate a topic or thing or word. They are playful meditations on a word’s sound – as in ‘Apaloosa’, on cockatoos and the mosquito. One of this section’s most brilliant poems, ‘The Binoculars’, speaks again of the sea: of sea-birds, and the speaker’s father’s love of watching them and of his friend, Harvey, who fell to his death while doing it. Revisiting the cabinet in which her father locked Harvey’s binoculars, she



them to the back of the room and saw what looked

to be the sky in mauve-grey, sea mist patterns

full of flecks like the birds I could never bring

to view.


She remembers then that once she


                                    …saw him again clasping Harvey’s

            binoculars between his knees, working the prisms

            and the light-gathering lenses he’d removed back

into place – and slowly sealing into each intricate

chamber as much as he could of Harvey’s ashes. (76-7)


It is tempting to read this final image as an overarching metaphor for the volume, but I do not want to simplify its rich mystery. Beveridge’s poetry requires us to ask the question – which crystallises in this particular collection and, moreover, in its figure of the lens – is poetry essentially facing itself, addressing itself and mining the bright core of language to illuminate its hold on us? Or does it face outwards to the world, bring us the world and open our minds to realities we have not yet experienced? The glass of ‘The Aquarium’, the final poem of the book, might be seen as another type of lens, one through which the speaker views so many of those creatures that appeared in ‘Driftgrounds’ as dead, now with wonder at their alien lives:


            The weirdest things are the tiny cuttlefish,

            the ones whose translucent, gelatinous faces

                                           are hung with the rippling curtains

            of their feeding tentacles. Their locomotion-frills are wafting too,

                        fine as chiffon.


She pulls these creatures close to us and pushes them away with wonderful similes, making them at once familiar and deeply strange. After describing the virtuosic acrobatics of the octopus, with another gesture of symmetry her last image is the shark:


            I go back to watch the octopus again whose arms now

            seem to be conducting music to four distinct orchestras.

                        Then it plays with one of the small rings put there for its

                   amusement –

            and in a flash

   as though its were a length of voile or Dacca silk, it draws

all four meters of itself through the ring’s small hole

                        shape-shifting then tightening

             its small face against the glass before it holds the rim

      of the ring again, and it draws itself back through

                        as if into another portal, another hole in space.


But even after this, it’s that shark I can’t forget –

         how it’s eyes keep staring, colder than time – how it never

                   stops swimming,

                          how it never closes its mouth. (86)


Perhaps speaking of poetry here, perhaps of the terror of death, it is a wonderful image to close a collection that holds the difficult tension between the two.


Beveridge’s is a poetry that keeps an exact and beautiful balance, as if she intuits a point of stillness where each line, each poem, comes to be complete. I often think that the heron, which appears so frequently in her work, is something of a symbolic totem bird. Her poems hold themselves open to the possibilities of time, of chance, of the ‘if only’ of the imagination, yet step with a similar delicate surety:


            Near the pier another heron is holding its bill over the reeds


            as purposeful as a seiner with a marlinspike, before it

jabs then returns to its wire-drawn stance, as if all it must

achieve now is to lift and pull itself into the distance

like sail twine.



And look! how they stand – at last – stilled to perfection. (‘Herons at Dusk’ 80)