Storm and Honey

In a way, “The Bincoculars” seems to speak with an earlier poem, “Incense”, from Beveridge’s second book, Accidental Grace. This is largely to do with the elegiac, quiet tone, as well as her father’s ashes (“these sticks just ghost your bloom”), which shadow the poem like incense smoke. But this lights on a major focus of this book, that many of them revisit older poems. They don’t simply consolidate, but sharpen their intent, moving beyond their companion pieces. Where Robert Gray, for instance, has constantly revised some of his poems, Beveridge doesn’t so much re-write as re-imagine. “Woman in a Street Stall”, although not explicitly set there, is so reminiscent of her Indian poems from Accidental Grace: tonally and in its seeing the dignity of manual work as well as its dreadful repetition it is of a piece with these poems, like a late arrival. “The Mosquito, Riffs and Plaints” might almost be a comic re-shaping of Beveridge’s pacifism in “The Caterpillars”. The darker tone in “Driftgrounds” has arrived in the poet’s backyard where she’s a threatening presence, “waiting// for [mosquitoes] with my aerosols”.

This re-imagining is particularly clear in “Herons at Dusk”, which vividly returns to “The Herons”, from The Domesticity of Giraffes. “Herons at Dusk” reframes some of the same imagery of that poem, adding a depth to the stillness of the original, and losing its more explicitly allegorical elements. This poem acts out in its own habitat what the herons do in theirs: as they sift, poised, through the mud of the mangroves, Beveridge sifts and sorts through metaphor and simile, and casts off the self that’s so present in “The Herons”. The birds “step deftly,/easily into constantly reconfigured stances”. Beveridge’s interest in bringing the poem close to what it represents is visible as she describes the heron’s movement as “a punctilio it must get right/ before it will allow itself to stand twinned to its reflection”. These twinned poems close similarly, though the early asceticism (“beautiful as blue veins in the wrists of monks / fasting for perfection”) has shifted to wonder at the sheer presence of the birds: “And look! how they stand – at last – stilled to perfection”. In fact, this poem might be an emblem for many of the poems in this book, if not Beveridge’s oeuvre more generally: a calm and graceful stalking that thrives on marginal, liminal spaces.

“Driftgrounds” is a very impressive body of work. While it reads as a narrative, it’s impressionistic and episodic, and while a plot of sorts is suggested, this seems more a trick of the light rather than an overriding or directed intention. It’s a dramatic monologue, but also very much a series of lyric poems. Both these elements are expanded and made diffuse because of that very doubleness. While the poems in “Driftgrounds” are very strong in their own right, the way they mesh together reinforces and reiterates their strengths, accentuates their nuance and subtlety, accumulating them and allowing them to gather together in such  a way that they speak to each other as much as they drive on from each other.

The discontinuous narrative of “Driftgrounds” is equal parts physical labour, celebration and elegy. If the violence and hard slog of “Driftgrounds” seems a world away from Beveridge’s two previous extended narrative sequences, “The Buddha Cycle” and “Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree”, Beveridge shows a remarkable flexibility in temperament in casting the gore of fishing and the emotional brittleness of her characters into the same poetics of interconnection as these earlier sequences. Of course, this interest in fishing is a ongoing presence in Beveridge’s work. See “Child Fishing”, “The Fishermen”, “Reels”, “Mud Crabs, Low Tide” and “Mulla Bulla Beach” from The Domesticity of Giraffes, “The Fishermen” from Accidental Grace, “The Fisherman’s Son” and “Crew”, the first poem in the “Driftgrounds” sequence to appear, from Wolf Notes.

Readers familiar with Beveridge’s work, but who’ve not seen these poems as they’ve appeared in journals the last few years, might be shocked at the muted but insistent brutality of the book’s first poem, “The Shark”, which sets the tone for the sequence. It establishes elements of the characters: Davey’s tenacity (“even Davey just about passed out”), and Grennan’s “cool” detachment. The mechanical onomatopoeia (“We heard the creaking clutch of the crank”) gives way to the vividly described evisceration of the shark. Beveridge feigns to prepares us for “sight none/ of us could stomach”, but the “limb’s/ skin [which] had already blanched” lacks the entire context that the final lines deliver:

… Gulls circled like

ghouls. Still they taunt us with their cries

and our hearts still burn inside us when

we remember, how Grennan with a tool

took out what was left of the child.

This dreadful image from the opening poem bookends Storm and Honey, as Beveridge couples “The Shark” with a final image of another shark in “Aquarium”. Again, it’s an image the speaker is haunted by, as if it’s a pre-emptive elegy for the endangered grey nurse shark. She closes the book with this:

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

how its eyes keep staring, colder than time – how it never

stops swimming,

how it never closes its mouth.

The elegiac tone that begins the book is a persistent feature of the sequence, but extends beyond it. “Driftgrounds” abounds with death and loss, most notably in poems such as “Lingo”, “Delancey”, “Afternoon”, “Whale” and “Joe”, with Beveridge, through Grennan, “sounding three blasts” in the direction of Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Bells”, much as she did in her earlier poem, “Hawkesbury Egret”. Elegy is the logical conclusion to the violence, loss and hardship of the life in these poems, which continually return to memory of both events and people. Often, instead of merely featuring the dead, they actively remember them, as in “Delancey”: “I can still see him walking across/ the marsh flats”. Of course the entire sequence, riddled with death, is also an insistent celebration, albeit muted, of work, friendship, the natural world.

It’s possible to read the fishing in “Driftgrounds” as an extended metaphor for writing. In “The Knot”, for instance,

Grennan takes another corded strand between his fingers,

… interlaces it to add dimension,

utility, beauty…

… moves his fingers

… as if  her were signing a run of verses,

or psalms in the deaf-dumb alphabet.

Because this metaphor of fishing as writing is so soaked in the violence of these poems, the idea of writing as a simply creative pursuit is placed under question: while the fishing itself is in a sense violent, in “Lingo” and “Weaver” in particular, the aggression of the eponymous characters is directed against animals. Where the speaker in an early Beveridge poem like “The Caterpillars” is a largely passive observer, mulling over her memory of boys killing caterpillars, the unnamed narrator of “Driftgrounds” is entirely more accusatory. Lingo’s “two cold eyes hung like a sorry umlaut”, and the one-eyed Weaver had

…left

… three prize Borzois chained outdoors

in a cyclone. All they found were

the chains and collars. Everything –

skin, organs, bones – sandblasted away.

The narrator responds: “I want to blast as much sand, gravel,/ bits of oyster shell and coral/ as I can into his one good eye”. This vitriol is a great distance from “The Caterpillars”: “I could only stand like a quiet picket”.

Still, there’s much that remains of Beveridge’s well-established meditative attention to what is still but cyclical, singular but interconnected. It is

… So good… to sit and work

taking thread from warp to weft; to listen to the sea pull in an out

without a thought for tarry or departure , even for what the boats

have caught…

… His fingers work the mesh,

the open weave twisting until it seems the sea itself is locked

(“Grennan Mending Nets”).

Similarly in “Capricorn”, “the world/ would not be a wave repeating its collapse”. On this recurrent non-attachment, As “Eagle Point” closes down, it’s strongly reminiscent of “Quarry”, from “Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree”. This is the former: “I watch terns in breached light fly to where the horizon// floats in and out of being, until finally I see the eagles/ into whose long looking I wish to lean, even fall right in”. This echoes and reifies “Quarry”: “Then I let go of all thought –/ and I felt like a bird/ floating in the clear, excavated air// high above the talus”. These frequent echoes of other poems sustain a melody, a reminder of the consistency of Beveridge’s work as well as confirming that her books are shaping as a large, substantial project.

Given the returning to, revision, inversion and rewriting of some of her established preoccupations and motifs, Storm and Honey strikes me as a point at which Beveridge’s work to date can be (re)appraised. In a very real sense, Beveridge is knitting the past into the present, creating ongoing webs of imagery and attitude, constantly reworking and refreshing them. This book feels like a refocusing and sharpening of intent: it’s certainly much more than mere repetition or consolidation. Rather, Beveridge demonstrates that the dynamism of her work is not limited to the carefully synched music of her rhythms and the inventiveness of her imagery and language: it is a work in progress that’s continually talking with itself, deepening its concern and attentiveness while reconsidering itself with a hard but steady eye. While Storm and Honey may well be the strongest of Beveridge’s collections to date, the “Driftgrounds” sequence is a remarkable mesh that reaches beyond her previous sequences and seems easily one of the major extended sequences by an Australian poet.

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3 Responses to Storm and Honey

  1. This is very exciting! what a great idea. Is it okay to spread the word?

  2. sambyfield says:

    Excellent review of an excellent book- its ability to transport the reader into a powerful, alien environment, coupled with the sheer density and mastery of language, mark this as a must-read collection and one of the highlights of the past few years.

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