Maria Freij: Beneath the Surface and the Scars in Anthony Lawrence’s Poetry
When I’m trapping on the Foggy, / fifteen miles off Catherine Hill Bay, / the world is good” (“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 1-3) writes Anthony Lawrence in his faux-simplistic manner. In his earlier collections, Lawrence often explores traditionally masculine activities, carried out by men in the company of men, like the drinking and pool-playing at the Anna Bay Tavern in “Lines for David Reiter”, or in solitude, fishing and remembering. The solitary moments are often filled with the urgency of being-in-the-world: the voice plays with these masculine scenes; its subtlety and sensuality is neither obviously male nor female, but both. The themes are human above all, and the voice encompasses many unexpected nuances. In a sense, this renders the voice ‘genderless’, a quality that allows for a more honest probing of the self and the landscape, an honesty that in later collections has seen Lawrence explore trauma and grief by mapping the emotional landscape with sincerity and integrity.
In “Trapping on the Foggy”, we see the narrator reconciling his Other self, his place in the world, and his childhood. This poem is an excellent example of the deceptive simplicity at play in Lawrence’s work, where fishing is never merely fishing. Indeed, the small slice of universe the persona inhabits in this moment is soon encroached upon by the surrounding world; its wickedness enters already in the next stanza on a local as well as international level: “In the morning paper, a murder / in Leichhardt; someone’s fist / photographed under rubble in Mexico” (lines 4-6). Even though the natural environment offers some consolation when the “wind makes calm / the most violent of days” (lines 7-8), this is not where Lawrence leaves us. Rather than pursuing the redeeming features of beautiful and uncorrupted Nature, he turns to the image of the tankers that come and go, which place us so visibly in the vicinity of Newcastle, Australia’s biggest coal port—few are the children who have not counted ships on its horizon. It also places us in the larger context of post-industrialisation, and the contemporary pastoral. These lines echo Charles Wright’s “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night”, where the oil rigs off Long Beach are “like floating lanterns out in the smog-dark Pacific” (line 3), man-made intrusions in the pristine environment (albeit one where the native flora has already been tampered with: the stars are in the eucalyptus, a species introduced to California for its fast growth and commercial value).
Wright’s oil rigs are mirrored in the “mythic history of Western civilization, / Pinpricked and clued through the zodiac” (lines 14-15). Similarly, in Lawrence’s “The Barn, the Moon”, his persona turns upward and struggles to name what he sees, hinting at a conflict between two worlds. The cosmos invites a reading of the microcosm as the idea of the very large leads to the focus on the minute, on ‘you’—the real pinprick in the universe:
Tonight I saw two planets
aligned over the blunt rocket head
of the Point Moree lighthouse.
Guessing their names,
their position in the sky,
I thought of you.
Wright’s (anti-)epiphany—“I have spent my life knowing nothing” (line 18)—comes explicitly from within, an acknowledgement of his existential condition. Lawrence’s epiphanies tend to come from elsewhere; in “Trapping on the Foggy”, as the persona falls into daydream, out of the depths of his subconscious emerges the memory of a shark:
It’s mostly routine, but once
a bronze whaler followed a trap
to the surface – it came out of the water
and laid its great head over the stern,
snapping in the air, tipping the runabout’s
nose to the sky. I looked into its eyes
and knew it wanted me. (lines 14-19)
The fisherman and Lawrence the poet are inextricably linked, the act of fishing a recurrent trope standing for the poetic act. Recurrent, too, are the hints of an underlying threat: the sharks; the sun, which is “a red balloon dragged under by the run of a surface predator” (“Carnarvon” (x) Collecting Live Bait at Dusk Under the One Mile Jetty, lines 16-17); and the funnel-web spiders “at the bottom / of swimming pools, sipping like deadly / pearls their bubbles of oxygen” (“Black Yolk and Poison”, lines 3-5).
Above all, Lawrence’s relationship with the sea is one marked by sensuality and intimacy:
And with every trap, I release myself
slowly, descending through miles
of green, sun-shafted water, down
through the bubbles, in touch with everything.
(“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 23-26)
The sensuous moment exemplifies this physical knowledge that one gains knowing the world through the senses, through the body. Many poems touch on this affinity and relationship with the sea, and the sexual undertones are sometimes more explicit. The legs of the redbacks in “Black Yolk and Poison” are “like fingers touching fishing line, / translating vibration into hunger, / hunger into death” (Lines 10-12), hinting at the most human of needs. In “Shearwaters,” the qualities of the sea are hard to separate from those of a woman:
an incoming tide of shapes
that merge to seed a furrow
where the sea’s dark pelt and raining wind combine –
Can the scent and texture of our skin be changed
by such encounters? (Lines 7-9 & 25-26)
The process of creating a poem has a prominent role in Lawrence’s work, as theme and as subject matter. It is as if the poetry cannot be escaped, as if, whether he’s holding a pen or a fishing rod, Lawrence is always writing. This sensation is accompanied by a certain weight. His worlds become one when the lure hits the water, because it must sink into other depths; however, the fishing trope can conjure up an artifice. The idea of being constantly conscious of the meaning of an experience, of its immediacy and pertinence, is exhausting, and potentially means that all moments are tampered with, created, man-made. There are certainly occasions when an indulgence in stylistics and the poems’ self-referentiality dominate:
A pair of sooty oystercatchers are probing
an oyster-blistered mantle of exposed reef
with their red beakspikes. I’ve found it’s
often best to wait a few days before turning
such things into poetry, but the accurate
wading and stabbing of the birds demands
(“Sooty Oystercatchers, Venus Tusk Fish”, lines 1-7)
Here, a chasm is revealed—the writer cannot fully inhabit the moment: he is changing it through the interpretation he is making (and, notably, its opposite is also true: “I move and I am changed, then changed again / by the telling of it” (“Shearwaters”, lines 34-35)).
In “The Barn, the Moon”, Lawrence offers memorable images and another glimpse of his aesthetics: for Lawrence, poetry is part of the natural order, and the only way to make sense of our place within it:
Some things emerge
from the day’s ordered scene
to arrest our inner attention,
and we respond to them,
using words or actions
until they pass, or remain
to build a small fire in our sides:
sunset through a pane of dimpled glass,
and the table is gold.
I respond with a shock of emotion
these words make visible. (lines 1-11)
Not until the words are written, and the images are translated, do their true significance and effect become real. The reflexive element notwithstanding, Lawrence gives equal attention to his narrative selves and the craft, like in “Trapping on the Foggy”, where he skilfully navigates the gaps and achieves a precarious balance through a Wordsworthian return to lost time: “I’m a child again,” he writes, “staring into tidal pools, my hands bent / and pale in clear water, counting bright shells” (lines 37-39). Memory is critical to Lawrence: indeed, to “move beyond the place / where memory harvests meaning” (“Shearwaters”, lines 35-36) is to allow the past a vivid presence.
Clearly, Lawrence is not, as his imagery might suggest, merely a landscape or nature poet. His real exploration is of the inner landscape and the processes at play in being a man and in being a poet. Unlike Murray or Kinsella, Lawrence does not evince a political agenda; nor does he aim to define the Australian landscape and its people. Lawrence makes no grand statements; his is a much more personal, private, and autobiographical poetry. His kinship with the sea resembles Robert Adamson’s affinity with the Hawkesbury, a nourishing and absolutely essential relationship that sees Lawrence, with playful awareness, “finger[ing] the handline like a downcast kite, / translating each bite into possibilities” (“Trapping on the Foggy”, lines 29-30).
The simultaneous presence and absence in Lawrence work—his tacking between inner and outer landscapes—allows for a poetry that speaks eloquently of love and loss; these deeper resonances become more pronounced in his later collections. The mantra that is “The Syllables in Your Name” is whispered in a faraway place, further underscoring the separation. “Infidelity and the Punishments Available” evokes distances growing larger by each stanza. In his lyrical poems Lawrence steers us into another type of unchartered waters: those of the strong psychological states into which he invites his audience. With honesty and openness he speaks of alienation, love, and madness, and again of the role of writing; art, for Lawrence, has become an instrument with which he navigates inner selves and landscapes. In these poems, too, the sea tropes have a prominent place: in “Tidal Dreaming” the narrator ponders having left his “body’s sleeping anchorage” (line 9) and the two characters are in “the wide bays of each other’s arms” (line 10). When Lawrence moves from the narrative into the more lyrical voice, and blurs the line between wake and sleep in this poem, the sensuality of the voice is poignant:
No need to question how far we travel
when behind our eyes time and distance
disengage their symbols to flicker and collapse
like glass in the skylight of a kaleidoscope.
When I lean forward to kiss you, pine needles
fall from my hair. (Lines 14-19)
This is a beautiful, loving, and most intimate moment to which we are privy. Lawrence’s lyrical poems are secretive, opening doors to rooms that not everyone can enter, and where the masculine imagery all but disappears. In these rooms, “rainbows hang in a bloom of spray” (“Just Below the Falls”, line 24) and a narrator divulges a truth in which we may all share: “I’ve been trying for years / to heal the private wounds of my life” (“The Aerialist”, lines 52-53).
In newer poems, like “Scars and their Origins”, there is also a noticeable shift in how Lawrence approaches both the moment and the writing of it:
I learned how to listen and when to distance
myself from the moment, and where I once
went to school on the immediate
and the external, now all I have to do
is remember how you wept and turned away
from the open lesions of my anger.
The distance from the moment allows for a different vision, and a space for healing. When Lawrence describes trauma, he takes a more direct approach to his craft and the snare of memory and guilt. His voice is unswerving, and the metaphors less engineered. This is certainly true in “Just Below the Falls”, which suggests a fall in mood and the crucial role of writing to existence and survival:
It’s been coming on for days, entering my speech
and sleep, bringing news from the other side.
This is how it is, where the sandstone ledge
I’m standing on is breaking away, and the whipbird’s
ricochet is lost to water’s thunder.
Something will happen if I stand here long enough –
a poem will come or the ledge give way,
though I’m through with falling back on the notion
of the suffering artist – we all have our demons
to contend with in our time.
Lawrence’s seductive entanglement of the subject and the poem is an invitation to a most intimate moment: the imagery and sensory connection leaves the subject vulnerable, to his predicament and to his audience. This is a careful balancing act, and one at which Lawrence excels. It is a large task, bridging the gaps between inner and outer landscapes, the craft and the image, and the past and the present, but one to which Lawrence is committed. A painful and arduous act, remembrance is ultimately a saving performance—one that keeps us from falling “captive to the constant / awful noise of reclusiveness” (“In the Shadows of a Rockspill”, lines 14-15).
Lawrence, A. “Black Yolk and Poison”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Carnarvon” (x) Collecting Live Bait at Dusk Under the One Mile Jetty, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Lines for David Reiter”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Lawrence, A. “Sooty Oystercatchers, Venus Tusk Fish”, in The Darkwood Aquarium, 1993: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “The Barn, the Moon”, in Cold Wires of Rain, 1995: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “The Queensland Lungfish”, in Cold Wires of Rain, 1995: Ringwood, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
Lawrence, A. “Trapping on the Foggy”, in Three days out of Tidal Town, 2002: Sydney, Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited.
Wright, C. “Looking West from Laguna Beach at Night,” in Chickamauga, 1995: New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.