Nina Cullen reviews The Jaguar by Sarah Holland-Batt
Reviewed by NINA CULLEN
Sarah Holland-Batt’s Stella Prize-winning poetry collection, The Jaguar (2022), is entirely absorbing and accessible. It does not work to evade or obscure, rather its precise language and imagery culminates in a narrative that is incisive and moving. The collection is structured into four distinct parts with each section comprising profoundly visceral and poignant poems and elegies that unify and harken back to the traditional elegy form, in the commemoration and celebration of painful relationships.
Admittedly, poetry has often felt alien to me, a sentiment that resonates with many reviews of the collection. This might be attributed to poetry’s niche within the broader literary landscape. Despite poetry’s smaller readership compared to other genres, as perceived by the publishing industry, it maintains a dedicated and passionate movement, with authors like Holland-Batt leading the charge.
The Jaguar is Holland-Batt’s third book of poetry, following on from The Hazards (2015) and Aria (2008). Her first book Aria won a number of national prizes, the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the Anne Elder Award. The Hazards won the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award and her latest novel, The Jaguar, took out the 2023 Stella Prize and The Australian Book of the Year 2022, and was either shortlisted or longlisted for a sleuth of other accolades. Interestingly, Holland-Batt marks the second consecutive poet to claim the Stella Prize, after Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear, following poetry’s inclusion in 2022. In addition to her poetry, Holland-Batt published Fishing for Lightning (2021), a collection of essays on how to read, understand, and love poetry. This publication is an informative read alongside The Jaguar, offering technical knowledge as well as context and shape to Holland-Batt’s own works.
Holland-Batt commences The Jaguar with a couple of lines from the ancient Greek poet and songwriter Sappho. It goes:
‘yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.’
This feels like the perfect prelude to the collection, a work that emerges as a deeply personal memoir. Rarely has a poetry collection made me teary, but this one managed it on the first page. Truly, Holland-Batt doesn’t mess around with the poem titled “My Father as a Giant Koi”; it’s a devastating and affecting poem and for me, the most memorable from the collection. Holland-Batt suspends readers in underwater quiet whilst metaphorically depicting her father during his most vulnerable state.
‘He has been down there for years –
ancient god of the dark, keepers of the single koan,
moving in currents only he can sense,’ (p3).
Following this initial impact, subsequent poems follow a similar tonal and visual current, centring on Holland-Batt’s father and his battle against an unspecified illness, which is later revealed as Parkinson’s disease in the poem “In My Father’s Country.” Despite the challenging subject matter and the hints of possible neglect he may have experienced during care, the author handles his deterioration with touching dignity. In her Stella Prize interview, Holland-Batt stated that her interest lies in exploring the difficult aspects of life. She’s “interested in contemplating the things that are difficult to look at: decline, death, violence, grief, sadness, and ageing. Holding the gaze when the gaze is hard seems to me to be the essential task of a poet.”
Fittingly, the collection’s second section tackles grief and loss, flitting breathlessly between fond memories of her father and his enduring battle with Parkinson’s disease. These poems combine the pedestrian details of hospitals – chemotherapy drips, buzzers, and the white sneakers of nurses – with colourful imagery of the natural world. This juxtaposition is most powerful when the language converges, notably ‘injections of nectar’ and David Attenborough’s whispers under the fluorescent lighting of hospital wards. Still, the devastation lies in the duality of author and father, both of whose stubbornness and strength persisted despite the odds. It’s best expressed in the poem “The Midpoint” the closing lines read:
‘Still I want
What I want –
Which is to endure,” (p37).
In part three, the lyricism takes on a folkloric quality, roving and delicious, thanks to Holland-Batt’s controlled use of metaphors, similes, and parables. Moments of absolute ferociousness punctuate the narrative, as the author paints exotic getaways, transitioning from hospital visits to French lingerie, super yachts in the wind, and magnums of Pol Rodger in gold tubs. Hyperbolically named “Mansions” and “Ode to Cartier”, these poems depict the allure and hollowness of the tumultuous relationship that anchors the narrative. The poem “Instructions for a Lover” highlights the glittery highs and lasting lows of this relationship: ‘pull me closer, push me away’ (p59) and is followed by “Epithalamium” – a type of poem for a bride on her way to marriage. “Epithalamium” employs several poetic devices including the repetition of ‘to believe’ and a clever fourth wall break, both of which create a sudden intimacy with the reader.
‘… to love a narcissist you have to believe, and reader, I did…’ (p60).
Satirical humour adds another layer to the narrative, capturing undercurrents of anger, chaos, and escapism. The narrative wraps up in satisfying conclusion with the author in “Serious Moonlight” wistfully stating that I will go alone,’ (p81).
Here and throughout the collection, Holland-Batt engages the first-person perspective, creating further intimacy between the reader and the text, and raising questions about who is speaking and what is meant by the use of “I.” The incorporation of first-personal perspective becomes more intriguing when considered alongside her employment of “lyric apostrophe,” a term rooted in Greek literature denoting the act of “turning away” – issuing both directives and admonitions to simultaneously come closer and turn away.
The final section serves as a roadmap of Holland-Batt’s time abroad in Egypt, Morocco, and Andalusia, and is bookended by her relationship with her father. Holland-Batt’s skill in depicting the natural world here is effortless. Her brush strokes craft loaves of limestone, lilac mist, and cinder blocked hills. Settings unfold like passing clouds, seamless and gentle, until sharp, frenetic language snaps you back to reality. It’s a feeling like whiplash and there’s no reprieve until the concluding poem, “In My Father’s Country”, which sprawls across fourteen pages to capture the ‘creeping lisp of Parkinson’s’ …
‘…I hate that you’ve stayed. You took your mind first…’ (p112).
The collection’s title and bold cover – The Jaguar – appears consistently, taking the form of a drug dealer’s pet, a toast with jaguar’s blood, and a jaguar’s breath. At one point, the jaguar transmogrifies into a forest-green vintage 1980 XJ; ‘a rebellion against his tremor,’ (p42). The symbolic nature of the jaguar varies across cultures, but largely it’s celebrated for its power and strength, both of which are compelling motifs throughout the collection. The jaguar isn’t the only animal that makes an appearance, in fact various animals – farm animals and sea creatures – are used to symbolically explore the gentle equilibrium between life and death, human and animal.
The Jaguar is a compelling introspection into what it means to be human. It accomplishes precisely what Holland-Batt advocates as the power of poetry in Fishing for Lightning, namely, the ability to evoke emotions; “bringing chills and solace, beauty and devastation” This collection fearlessly delves into themes of heartbreak, grief, regret, and, above all, love, and the powerful ways these experiences intersect. It’s emboldened by the ferocity and complexity of love and its inevitable decline, particularly in the context of neurodegenerative disease, and the ways that we as humans, as animals, suffer but also the ways in which we endure.
NINA CULLEY is a writer, reviewer and educator based in Naarm. She’s the Studio Manager and Director of Melbourne Young Writers’ Studio where she teaches creative writing. Her works have appeared in numerous publications including Kill Your Darlings, Aniko Press and Eureka Street.