Review: Martin Duwellon Judith Beveridge

Imaginative Expansions

In one sense, Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems can be seen as a replacement for Hook and Eye: A Selection of Poems published in 2014 in the Braziller series. That wasn’t, I suppose, a true Selected, more a brief introduction (it runs to just under a hundred pages) for those unacquainted with Beveridge’s work. Sun Music has a slightly exiguous feeling as well: one hundred and seventy pages chosen from her earlier books and a nearly book-length collection of new poems which provides the book’s title.

The reason for its comparative brevity is explained in Beveridge’s introduction in which she relates her reasons for omitting the extensive poems revolving around the life of the Buddha: the long sequence, ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, from Wolf Notes (2003), and the whole of Devadatta’s Poems (2014). She describes the Buddha poems as being ‘a different stylistic strand in as much as they are of a quieter register, and much more focussed on the inward drama of the characters’ and argues that they are not narratives but rather sequences, a mode which has the advantage of providing a ‘framework for the imagination to slot into rather than having to face a blank page every time a poem is finished’. This rings true in terms of authorial practice but I think that the sequences are narratives; it’s just that they belong to the strand of elliptical narrative which works by focussing on moments of high drama and omitting the intervening, less intense components of the narration – how a character got from Point A to Point B, how he watered his horse, etc. Of course, given the subject of the Buddha poems, the moments of high drama are internal psychological events, a fact that might seem to remove the poems even further from conventional ideas about narration but they are, nevertheless, narratives (and Beveridge concedes as much when she cites Dorothy Porter’s Akhenaten as an important influence).

I worry this out at some length because the dramatic component in Beveridge’s poetry is crucial to an understanding of her poetic personality, as crucial in the poems of Sun Music as it is in the Buddha poems. It means that we will have to await a collection of her narrative poems before we can look at the way her imagination works. The narratives are not a separate mode (comparable, say, to the fictions and poetry of Robert Graves); they are part of the way Beveridge’s imagination expands and enters into previously unfamiliar territory.

Beveridge describes herself as a ‘lyrical poet’ choosing an adjective that makes a subtle but important distinction with ‘lyric’: she is a writer with lyric tendencies rather than a writer of lyrics. And these ‘lyrical tendencies’ need some exploration. There are two important lyrical paths, for example, that her poems don’t go down. The first is the recounting of personal experience that can lead to varying depths of psychological analysis (done with images and in a poetic mode, of course, rather than clinical methods). The second is a focus on the natural world and a drive towards locating it precisely in language – what is often called ‘capturing’. There is a degree of this latter impetus in Beveridge’s poems and I’ll have something to say later about the points where language and the world come face to face. There is, however, precious little of the first impetus. It doesn’t take much reading of Beveridge’s work to realise that the body of her poetry gives us very little information about herself. It does give us a sense of what her poetic and imaginative drives are but she is not a clearly defined presence.

I think the reason for this – to generalise provisionally – is that her imagination drives her towards extension of experience rather than recording of self or world. The second poem of this selection, ‘Making Perfume’ is, in a way, a warning to the reader and preparation for the ways in which the poetry needs to be read.

It describes in detail how the ‘I’ figure makes perfumes out of picked flowers: ‘Then I took some bottles from their cupboards . . . I lined them like wineglasses on the sill . . . I remember how I lived that summer . . .’ but nobody would feel comfortable reading this as a recounting of the poet’s adolescent experience and, after we’ve read enough Beveridge, we are probably going to want to see it as an imagined situation done more as a dramatic monologue. Why would a poet want to imagine herself as a faintly sinister young girl making perfumes? We could speculate that it’s possible to read it as an allegory of making poems – both work by transmuting experiences into a powerfully scented object and that it describes early stirrings of creativity. So much of ‘Making Perfume’, unlike other poems from A Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), where it was first collected, seems very much in the Beveridge mode and we can see it as representing many of the drives of her poetic self. For the poem doesn’t just extend experience by creating another character to inhabit – in the Browning mode – it extends the processes of engaging the natural world by listing and naming. To take the opening stanza:

So, that summer I picked everything:
the hibiscus that shut at six o’clock,
the white-pollened flower
I called The Baker’s Daughter,
the yellow rose that lasted weeks beyond its season
and the great pale flower with a cold look –
Queen in the Tower. . .

There is a distinctive movement here that can be found in innumerable Beveridge poems: on the one hand, the texture and imaginative compass of the poem is expanded by moving out into what is essentially a list; on the other, the texture is tightened by being very precise in its naming. And adding to the lyrical complexity of this balance is the fact that the names here are metaphoric rather than scientific, binomial ones.

Listing is also a syntactic gesture, a kind of spinning-out parataxis, and as such it is only one example of a whole series of repetitive syntactic structures in Beveridge’s poetry. ‘To the Islands’ from Beveridge’s second book, Accidental Grace (1996), is a kind of embodiment of her processes of extension because it ‘describes’ a yet-to-be-undertaken journey, not necessarily to Cythera but certainly to a world where the senses are experienced with more intensity and precision than they are on the jetty of departure:

I will use the sound of wind and the splash
     of the cormorant diving and the music
any boatman will hear in the running threads
     as they sing about leaving for the Islands.

I will use the sinker’s zinc arpeggio as it
     rolls across a wooden jetty and the sound
of crabs in the shifting gravel and the scrape
     of awls across the hulls of yachts.

I will use the washboard chorus of the sea
     and the boats and the skiffler’s skirl
of tide-steered surf taken out by the wind
     through the cliffs . . .

It’s a poem that could be compared with ‘Native Orchids’ which appears among the recent poems of this selected. That title might lead one to expect a poem in the Judith Wright mode but it is actually cleverly structured to be a search for orchids rather than for an illusory otherworld of islands. The search fails but the detailing of the extensive experiences during the quest has the same result – ‘we saw the late sun syndicating its light in level after / level of office block windows – and for a moment / we were startled out of ourselves’ – that finding the elusive flowers might have had. To return to ‘To the Islands’, the movement of the poem as a whole works by having six repetitions of this determined ‘I will use’ interrupted by four stanzas that are much more doubtful and involve repetitions of ‘perhaps I can use’, a little like the second theme in sonata form.

And then there is a poem like ‘Rain’ from Storm and Honey (2009), composed entirely of phrases beginning with ‘rain’ – ‘Rain bubble-wrapping the windows. Rain / falling as though . . .’ – which is, since its aim is to ‘capture’ the phenomenon that makes up its subject, perhaps a little simpler as poetry than ‘To the Islands’. Although two cases prove nothing, it would be possible to go on and on citing examples of this sort of syntactic repetitiveness to accommodate a kind of expansion. It is one of the cornerstones of Beveridge’s poetic technique.

Although the verbal structures of Beveridge’s poems are categorizable they aren’t formulaic and predictable. At the thematic level, the imaginative expansion I have written of often takes the form of moving into another life and not necessarily in a full-blooded dramatic way, though there are plenty of dramatic monologues in her work. I’m most interested in those poems in which the author remains distinct from the character focussed on in the poem but nevertheless experiences a widening of the boundaries of the self. One of the best examples is ‘Man Washing on a Railway Platform Outside Delhi’:

It’s the way he stands
nearly naked in the winter sun
turning on and off the railway
station tap. I have seen people
look less reverent tuning Mozart.
I have seen hands give coins
to beggars appear nonchalant
compared to the way his hands
give water to his body.
Don’t tell me this is a man
released for a moment
out of poverty, a man who wants
the penance of each cold drop;
a man who wants the smell
of his neighbours to vanish
from his skin, who wants to taste
what is beyond the scum
and effluent of the village ditch.
And don’t tell me each drop
he takes to glisten his body
will never be neutral, though
he holds each clear spill
with equality. It isn’t just
the water. It’s the way his hands
take the water from the tap
to his body. It’s the way
he attends each pore. It’s the way
he decants the water back
and forth as if receiving
instruction for the repetition
of the names of God. And it’s
the way he knows his poverty
without privacy – and the way,
though the water is free,
he takes careful litres.

Contextually this is part of a series of Indian ‘portraits’ in Accidental Grace which work in similar ways. The title approximates the style of the title of a painting and this immediately sets up an observer removed from the subject. It might seem, in other words, that what is to follow is a ‘capturing’ poem with all the problems of appropriation that contemporary life is sensitive to.

What we get is, instead, a rejection of five possible interpretations of the man’s situation: that the washing is a momentary release from poverty, a penance, a purification, an aspiration, and, finally, the rather more cryptic ‘and don’t tell me each drop / he takes to glisten his body / will never be neutral, though / he holds each clear spill / with equality’, lines that I’m not sure that I understand because of the difficulty of seeing what is intended in the word, ‘neutral’. These are answered by five authorial assertions: that the act is one of physical grace, of bodily care, of religious intensity, of acceptance of his state and, finally, of respect for the precious liquid itself. It’s an electric argumentative structure that makes for a much more intensely knitted-together poem than it might seem on the surface. Lists often have the problem of extending out paratactically – it’s a problem with some of Beveridge’s list poems– but this one is dynamically structured and absolutely taut, a poem of intellectual engagement rather than the rhapsodic approach of ‘To the Islands’.

This is also a poem in which the self is extended, not by imaginatively inhabiting the identity of a character but by observing an actual person and working through to a more intimate appreciation of the mechanisms behind his actions. It’s not a ‘study’ either because there the apparatus an observer brings to the subject is self-contained. Here, I think, the observer is more vulnerable and has a slightly more porous self.

Something like this process of extension of the self can be seen in the next ‘portrait’, ‘Tarepati’, which looks at a Nepalese man working as a cook in the city far away from his wife and children. The structure of the poem is built around the clauses ‘He looks at me … as if he wondered … Tonight, if I were him … But he looks at me’ thus enacting an interpretive identification and then rejecting it. The poet guesses that the man longs for family and land in the Nepalese hills and resents the cruel restrictions imposed on his life. Perhaps he desires an imaginative extension too, although unlike that of the poet, it will be an extension back into the lost familiar.

Other Beveridge portraits show the characters yearning towards some kind of loosening of strictures placed on the self; it can seem that the poet achieves a widening of her own situation by either merely observing or vicariously experiencing it. There are a number of poems about people flying kites, for example. For the girl in ‘Girl on a Rooftop Flying a Kite’ (another painting-style title) the kite is ‘a ticket // to a far-flung domain where clouds pledged / themselves into her future like constituents’ and for the boy of ‘Bahadour’ (another poem whose structural dynamics involve a list of rejections) the kite is a symbol of hope for change and is opposed to his work-bicycle which moves in endless circles.

Beveridge’s habitual method of listing is related to her practice of naming, which occurs as early as ‘Making Perfume’, and continues throughout her work. Sometimes, as in ‘Camel’ the second last poem of this selection, it is not the names themselves that matter but the existence of such a multiplicity of names, conceived as a list:

There is a name for a camel that drinks
from the watering hole at noon. There is a name
for a camel that drinks at any time; a name
for a camel that drinks once during the day

and once at night. There is a name for a camel
that drinks only once every three weeks
despite walking all day over undulating dunes . . .

Naming ‘all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts’ is, of course, Adam’s first task. Naming is an Edenic activity and some of Beveridge’s more rhapsodic poems gain some of their tone by tapping into this. We aren’t given the names of camels here but more often it is the names themselves which are important. ‘Naming Roses’, from Accidental Grace, organises the names to reflect the character’s situation:

. . . . .
She intones the idol in each unhurried petal
and listens to the ways some days are shaped:
Rendezvous, Soirée, Téte-à-Téte
and all the paths are full that fill
the intimate fragrance of her life:
each rose a door swinging open
as she strays then leaves, room by room, for the night –
whispering Cheer, Fiesta, Cameraderie
as if she knew she would never be more alone than she wanted;
past Stage Door, Recital, Double Ovation . . .

Here the interest is really in the baroque proliferation of the commercial names of various rose hybrids.

Most often, though, naming in Beveridge is a function of a language obsession. Sometimes the interest is in the metaphoric nature of the names, as in those of ‘Making Perfume’, but most often it is an interest in the phonetic quality of the names themselves, the way they sound on the tongue. We meet this interest in a poem like ‘Appaloosa’, a list-poem made up of negations – ‘I have never been bumped in a saddle . . . . . And I have never counted the slow four-beat pace . . . . . I have never stepped my hands over the flanks . . . . .’ – which finishes with ‘And though I have / waited for jockeys . . . . . ah, more, more even / than them – I have always loved the word appaloosa.’ Here, it seems, the phonically loved word is a way of imaginatively extending the poet’s self so that she can, in a least some way, be a horsewoman.

‘Grasses’, one of the new poems, is a love song that celebrates not only the lover but also the grasses in which the couple might lie down, ‘Perhaps gentle Annie, eulalia, / plumerillo, walloo, or mountain wanderrie.’ And one of the characters in the series of fisherman poems in Storm and Honey is unexpectedly able to name winds: ‘virazon, zonda, bayamo, / chinook, samoon, sirocco, tramontana’. Many poets, of course, share this fascination with the sound of words from the more exotic reaches of vocabulary sometimes because of that very exoticness, sometimes because they might find a momentary connection between the feeling of the word in the mouth and what it represents and thus, in some way, recreate the prelapsarian scheme where, before generalisations had been invented, every animal was identified with, rather than by, its name.

In ‘How to Love Bats’ technical names are highly suggestive – ‘but for now – // open your mouth, out will fly names / like Pipistrelle, Desmodus, Tadarida’ – names so delicate that they might well be glamorous personal names for individual bats. One of the new poems is a response to a poem by Anthony Lawrence, one of the four contemporary poets that Beveridge cites as influences, along with Dorothy Porter, Martin Harrison and Robert Gray. The first poem of Lawrence’s first book, ‘Quasimodo’s Bells’, ends with Quasimodo naming his bells, ‘Angeltongue, Banshee, Goldenmouth, Sirocco’; Beveridge’s ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’ salutes this by finishing with another set of memorable, imagined names, ‘Minstrel, Silverskirr, Gypsyspiel’.

Beveridge’s fascination with the tactility and suggestiveness of names is really only a part of her interest in the sounds of the language themselves. It’s something we expect from lyric (or lyrical) poets but it isn’t always as overt and developed as it is in Beveridge’s poems. We can see it in a poem like ‘Rory’, a portrait of a damaged wool-worker, which includes technical terms such as ‘burr’, ‘frib’ and ‘britch’ which are both precise and arcane but also distinctive in the mouth. Davey, one of the fisherman in Storm and Honey, says of his reel, ‘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 . . .’, and one could multiply these examples.

Another feature of these sounds is Beveridge’s interest in dissonance. In a sense it is encapsulated in the title of one of her books, Wolf Notes, because the wolf-note or wolf-tone is a wobble in pitch caused by a sympathetic vibration induced in the body of the instrument itself. The poem, ‘Wolf Notes’, is, fittingly, a grotesque piece; I won’t look at it in any detail here beyond making the suggestion that it looks like an embodiment of the opposite of what one might expect of a poet often celebrated for her rhapsodic tone and high style. This is a title poem and the first two poems of the preceding book, Accidental Grace, seem to be about equivalently harsh music. The first of them (not included in this selection) describes a man blowing through a grass blade and, though the conclusion is positive, the body of the poem suggests a harsh sound suited to grief. The second, ‘When Will the Kennelman Come?’, is about dogs, has a weird faux-ballad quality (it exploits the border ballad’s ability to convey the sinister and uncanny) and is dominated by ugly sounds, ‘the whelps are baying like swans / nailed by their wings to the gate’. I read this, speculatively, as being an assertion on the part of the poet that she is interested in the dissonant notes and wants to avoid being seen as someone operating only at a certain level and with a certain tone. And I wonder if this isn’t the reason why the first poem of her first book is ‘The Domesticity of Giraffes’ rather than, say, ‘Making Perfume’. Admittedly it is the title poem but most readers would probably think a title like ‘Making Perfume’ might be a fraction closer to what Beveridge is doing in this first book.

‘The Domesticity of Giraffes’ does fit in with later directions Beveridge takes, especially when she imagines the female giraffe in the zoo longing for the open savannah. The conclusion is interesting:

I offer her the fresh salt of my hand
and her tongue rolls over it
in sensual agony, as it must
over the wire, hour after bitter hour.

Now, the bull indolently
lets down his penis like a pink gladiolus
drenching the concrete.

She thrusts her tongue under his rich stream
to get moisture for her thousandth chew.

There is certainly something grotesque in this description of the female drinking the male’s urine, something, people might once have said, not commented on in ‘polite society’. And the last line is oddly unsatisfying both aurally – one could imagine a writing class worrying about the sounds ‘n’, ‘d’, ‘th’, ‘ch’ and ‘yew’ all coming together – and syntactically, where to finish with a verb converted into a noun seems bathetic if not positively lame. But I think the tactic is deliberate: in the first poem of her first book she introduces a wolf note – here a wobble in the general tone of the poem and also a tangy taste – as a reminder that she is not entirely to be categorised as an elevating lyricist.

The fact that sounds can form such an important part of the texture of the poetry leads a critical reader to the other senses. Sight is an important one because precise registration of details involves the use of metaphoric language and metaphor is an important part of method rather than material. Beveridge is clearly attracted to Robert Gray’s visual precision – though rejecting its philosophical background – and an analysis of the differing functions of metaphor in these two poets would be a useful issue for further research. Other poets make appearances in the new poems of Sun Music, two of them as the subjects of elegy, and ‘The Harbour’, the introductory poem of the second section of the previous book, is dedicated to Gray and concludes with a specific reference: ‘just as I’m remembering your poem, / Robert, about the late ferry crossing the water’. This too has the shape of a list and its structure involves isolating each element of the scene – the yachts, the moon, Fort Denison, and so on – and applying a simile mechanically to each –

Out on the harbour yachts are clustered like little wedges
of hard white cheese stuck with toothpick-thin masts.
The moon is a cocktail onion, or just a plain soda cracker,
but the sun is a dollop of hot chilli relish, floating above

the vol-au-vent shape of Fort Denison. At Cremorne Point
a lighthouse gleams like a salt cellar . . .

– and the similes go on being derived from the cocktail party. It is not a difficult poem to understand and its rhapsodic conclusion, ‘as / the light spills intemperately and wantonly as honey’ works by contrasting the natural beauty and goodness of honey with the socially constructed foods which had, each in their own similes, preceded it. But it’s still difficult to know exactly what the author wants us to make of the tone of the body of the poem. It seems to most readers to have a touch of the grotesque about it – the visual equivalent of wolf-tones – and one wonders whether part of the burden of the poem might be a criticism of the use of similes in ‘fixing’ material that the sense of sight provides us with.

‘Herons at Dusk’ is also a poem about fixing what our sense of sight provides. It begins with a background of movement and finishes with stillness:

. . . . .
                 When the herons quietly step they make

even the stilts’ and avocets’ neat stabs along the sand
seem like slapstick; they make the routines of all who fish
along the shore at dusk seem over-weighted and vaudevillian.
And look! how they stand – at last – stilled to perfection.

But it also begins with sound – that of whipbirds and, one of Beveridge’s favourite sounds, the tinkling of yachts’ masts as they move – and concludes with silence. It begins with metaphoric language – the whipbirds are setting ‘acoustic flares’ and the yachts sound like cutlery being placed on table tops – and ends with a bald, elegant statement. Again, as with ‘The Harbour’, one wants to read this as making a comment about the difference between fixing sight and fixing sound in a poem. The precision of the heron might match that of a poem that works although the poem seems also to say that the heron when hunting is not as impressive as the heron when still and this might well account for the strong simile that says that when it is preparing to strike it is ‘as purposeful as a seiner with a marlinespike’.

‘Herons at Dusk’ is from Storm and Honey and the last poem of that collection, ‘The Aquarium’, focusses on sight; the fish of the various tanks are necessarily quiet while presenting a riot of visual impressions that are often grotesque. It’s also one of Beveridge’s long, extended poems, working through the long list of tanks and their inhabitants. As with ‘The Harbour’ each aquatic animal to have its own precise simile so that, for example, the pictures of the gropers etc look like ‘mugshots of fleshy-lipped, thick-browed thugs’, when the octopus draws itself through a ring it is like ‘a length of voile or Dacca silk’ and the gummy sharks have bubbles ‘like a small Milky Way’ running over their backs. Though there is no sound there is, in the case of the octopus, the interesting observation that the movement of its arms looks as though it ‘were writing over and over in slanting, looping letters: / lollygag, lollipop, lollapalooza / on the tank-water, on the pebbles and the rising stream of bubbles’. These words sound very much like the much-loved word ‘appaloosa’ but they don’t get the chance to be an experience in the mouth since here they are only written.

The very last poem of this entire selection, ‘As Wasps Fly Upwards’, encapsulates a lot about Beveridge’s poetic methods and the relation between the senses and metaphor. It is based on the work of Justin Schmidt, the author of the Sting Pain Index (familiar to viewers of QI), where gradations of pain expressed as a series of unscientifically imaginative similes. It contrasts the ferocious pain of stinging insects with the more mundane pains of a poet’s existence and is grateful that her work with metaphors is different from ‘drawing and quartering metaphors for the way toxins / can burst open cellular membranes’. Meditating on possible ends, she concludes that she might die

. . . . .
           just from a build up over the years
         of light, ephemeral stings –
     barely noticed, no pain worth recording –
just a remote hum in a honey-vault of light,
                then a smoky drifting away.

deploying two of her much-used metaphors of honey
and smoke.

‘The Aquarium’ contains a description of two turtles swimming together which suddenly shifts to ‘The dance was slow, was slow, was slow. Slow was the dance, very. / The dancer turned, her arms held out as she came closer, slowly’. This rather dissonant inclusion is, so Beveridge’s notes tell us, a quote from a poem by James Galvin published in the 2008 edition of the annual Best American Poetry. It is an example of a common practice in her poetry which is not at all common elsewhere: that of using lines from other poets for titles, conclusions or just material for the body of the poem. All these are carefully acknowledged and, to the reader, as in the case of the turtles and the dancers, they rarely seem especially potent. But it is clear that they do something for Beveridge’s method of working.

Such lines remind us, also, that Beveridge is a committed reader of poetry (less common than one might expect), that she has been involved with mentoring an extraordinary number of the new poets who have emerged over the last thirty years or so. They remind us that Bruce Beaver, who was an early mentor of Beveridge herself, read contemporary poetry voraciously, recommended that practice to beginning poets, and, in Letter to Live Poets, himself developed the practice of including lines from other poets in the body of his poems. I think that these lines from other poets are, in Beveridge’s way of working, stimulants to extension, opening up a door into a different world that the poet herself can enter.