Reviewed by Ian Lipke
It has been many years since I have enjoyed the comprehensiveness of a major poet, and striven to reach the intellectual level at which Judith Beveridge’s verse lies, relaxed and casually presented in her Sun Music: New and Selected Poems. I am a huge fan of her breadth and especially the depth of her knowledge. She is an expert in the different forms of verse and when their use is or is not appropriate.
She exhibits a sophisticated knowledge of technology. One senses a Buddhist ethos permeating a number of poems (sometimes explicitly as in The Elephant Odes – the elephant seen as the avatar of the Buddha). She knows giraffes and presents their habits in the biological sense with conviction. She knows her flora and fauna. She reminds us that cranes are associated with Japanese, therefore haiku are an appropriate medium for her verse; there is nostalgia for the time before sophisticated organisation, by which she means modernity, took over. The variety never ceases.
Variety takes at least two forms – variety of subject matter across the poems and the variety in the manner with which she delivers them.
In The Domesticity of Giraffes she employs lengthy Latinate lines with a rich vocabulary, and dexterity with almost clinical precision, to deliver what she wants to say. In captivity the giraffe “languorously swings her tongue”, it is “like a black leather strap”, she is “bruised-apple eyed”. In a state of freedom the giraffe’s “head [is] framed in a leafy bonnet/or balloon-bobbing in trees”. Then, the powerful means by which she shows the unnaturalness of penning giraffes in captivity, “she thrusts her tongue under his rich stream/to get moisture for her thousandth chew” (4). When running free, male giraffes approach a female and place their tongues in her urine only for the purpose of testing if she is ‘in heat’. Male giraffes more often enjoy a homosexual relationship with other males. Thirst in both sexes is overcome by the juice in leaves. So deprivation could not have been shown in a more graphic way than Beveridge has displayed in this devastating poem in which she reverses the natural order to depict an unnatural world.
The Domesticity of Giraffes is immediately succeeded by the poem Making Perfume which demonstrates the poet’s intimate knowledge of the plant kingdom. Then comes the delicate For Rilke and the compelling Orb Spider and The Caterpillars “lying down in the road and dying/when they could no longer touch each other” (14) just as each and all, pacifist or not, need the touch of our shared humanity. Suddenly, we’re reading Japanese Cranes, a haiku-structured poem. The waves of different styles and the ripple of tones as we flick through her verse is quite breathtaking.
On page 30 lies a surprising piece of creativity. It is Flower of Flowers which is a verse form that has prose-like features. In form it seems to be prose but read aloud it falls into regular poetic rhythm.
Variety can be gauged by a means other than subject choice. We are given a lesson in lineation and enjambment when we read Beveridge.
Dark was just coming on. Lightning flexed
Its muscled whip. The rain fell in heavy drops.
Steadily, the clouds puffed up. Many times
I thought I knew the predicted outcome.
I thought I knew the way the evening would
Turn out, sure and tight – a monkey’s tail-ring.
Here we have the opening stanzas of The Courtesan and immediately note that the main idea of the line is concluded before the line runs on. The strength of the storm is demonstrated in the choice of vocabulary as in ‘flexed’ and ‘its muscled whip’. I must admit to puzzlement over the poet’s choice of numbers of verses within each group. Some have two verses, some have three or four.
Generally speaking, the poems are fresh and committed to the reader in an even, conversational tone. Where fierce words are needed they are used but the chat is never disturbed from its even flow. A Girl Swinging is a short girl, hence short lines and simple language; spider webs are complex, hence long twisted sentences, accurately and minutely described; pacifists who follow a leader, are destroyed if they lose their leader – The Caterpillars demonstrates this.
Artist follows the dramatic monologue construction so favoured by Robert Browning in his many poems, but specifically, My Last Duchess. Beveridge incorporates into the poem a deep psychological interest. Her focus appears at first sight to dwell on externality, especially as observed in visual imagery, but an observant reader should not miss her focus on the inward drama of the characters:
Elise, around your shoulders
I’ll paint blood. Around your
breasts an expedience of leaves.
I’m waiting for the light to be
cornered on the sill. I’m waiting
for your voice to short out
my heart along the quickly burning
length of St Christopher’s spire.
Already an unthankful moon
has climbed opposite the sun (118).
There is motion in this poem. What can I ask ‘of your lips’ gives way to ‘your hands’ to ‘your eyes’ to the porticoes of the square but also to the sun burnishing and the focus on scarlet, a colour Beveridge loves to incorporate in her work. Here the colour tracks from the artist’s palette under a ‘vanquished’ bridge – one that carries the blood of the fallen – to the plumage of finches high up in the trees at the level of desire that Beveridge claims “should always live on the wing” (116). She continues the ‘scarlet’ reference in “your skin/is a breaking wound” (116) to the ‘red facade’ that is closer to the artist’s heart.
As always Nature is a powerful player. It is a source of transfiguration and redemption. But it is the transfiguring and associative powers of the poet’s imagination that gives the imagery its power of redemptiveness. There is evidence of an attempt to make interiority more tangible. In meeting the challenge of writing a good poem she attempts to replace the meditative with dramatic polarities. A good example occurs in An Artist Speaks to his Model:
I search all
the shades the wind might bruise
you with, days in these bitten-out
streets. Impossible to get your
lips to resemble fate (117).
But Elise lives by endless palisades, by fierce pigments i.e. an exotic life. Ordinary mortals, like the artist himself, live in rooms i.e. they live ordinary lives. The poet is compelled to examine the intersection of human characters and places with the world of Nature. Beveridge writes true to the maxim of Ezra Pound: Only emotion endures. As an example I would instance The Courtesan who recognizes a dissociation, and therefore a condemnation, by the courtesan herself of her way of living. Men lose their individuality in her stark portraits. I think of a pen and ink drawing. She dismisses one fellow with
O, I’ll remember him under the weight
Of the millstone maker, the grain sack puller,
the mausoleum attendant with his callous breath (120).
With a conversational tone, she condemns the way she lives, having sent away the only one she cared for because she was envious of his preoccupation with guinea fowl. A façade of impersonality is her way of coping with loss.
How to love bats is an ironic comment on self-appointed experts. Like The Courtesan its tone is far less volatile, less fired than the imagery of An Artist Speaks to his Model. The latter is where Beveridge’s interest lie and she lays her words out as the words of her most fervent inner being.
I was drawn in by Invitation, a poem where Beveridge sets up an extended image of cooking oil as a motor carrying the kitchen which sets the course. The kitchen is the carrier of the imagery. Note the phrases feeding off each other:
“My kitchen is setting its course!…The pan dips low…I’m reading the brochures…I like the way a carob bean maps/the Caribbean…I try to steer/the flavour, arrange the colours on a plate./The kitchen is the compass” and so on, the outcome a complete poem that is an extended image of superb and intelligent beauty. I can’t get enough.
Islands of figs, oil carefully frying
a wild banana, a breeze gently rocking
and water murmuring like a slow sentence
lifted from the phrase book.
Whoever owns the language owns the food,
though once dreaming paths may have linked
our sites. We will stare into our plates,
call all fares to our table.
I light the candles, their flames
are the soft palms of stewardesses
in the heart’s wild, imagined places (38 – 39).
If the work of any living poet were to be set to be emulated it would be that of Judith Beveridge. It is enriching, supportive, caring and determined in its many roles. She writes:
One of my joys as a poet is in trying to develop a unique relationship with language. Poetry is always inevitably an experience in language…poetry must always be a showdown between the word and the poet, that the writing of a poem should endure a costly process. I’m interested in the investigative shapes of poetry, how emotion can be dynamically yoked to form and sound (Sun Music, extract pp. xiv-xvi).
My copy of her new book Sun Music doesn’t look new anymore. The edges are tattered from my reading that does not cease since each time I read it, I find something new. Buy yourself a copy.
Sun Music: New and Selected Poems
By Judith Beveridge