Susan Fealy reviews Colombine by Jennifer Harrison
Colombine, New & Selected Poems
by Jennifer Harrison
Reviewed by SUSAN FEALY
For Jennifer Harrison, discovery occurs through play with language and in Colombine, New & Selected Poems we see a dialectic stance to her investigations.
The tensions of mind/body, freedom/constraint and the lyric ‘I’ /modern awareness of its language medium appear in a variety of metaphoric guises.
In ‘The Wheel’, from her first collection, Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the poem introduces us to a body that has been impinged upon by medical science:
Under the tongue, after meals
the little pill melts. A mongrel dog
infects an embryo with its indolent lick.
We can bear it we say. Look now
at the human genome, a shiny new ship
emerging from the dock.
The body has been infiltrated by a mind that is ‘ambitious’ and seeking ‘a perfect pot’ but which, in its very certainty, may change what is inherently a soft, organic substance. It is tempting to see this as metaphor for Harrison’s poetic. Her erudite interest in the mind’s processes and in language (the medium of her perceptions) conflicts with a sense of being that is fluid and disrupted by such investigation. How the creative process mediates the two is seen in her work. As a psychiatrist, she is attuned not only to her mind’s processes, but to those of others. She gives us many languages by speaking through the lens of others; languages wrought by a rare attunement to the multiplicities of perception.
‘Aus-lan’ is a poem of intimate encounter with the mind of another. It is also a celebration of a transmission of mind that seems to reduce the gap between mind and body experience more so than spoken language:
I hear a quiet voice in my hands
in the silence when I am speaking
and foam, rubber, snow and glycerine
seem softer in the fingering span
than spoken words falling short of what they name.
This poem’s celebration of the mind’s different ways of knowing is also a comment about how direct in-the-moment experience through the senses is attenuated and distanced by language. Yet, in the same poem, with a magician’s hand, she offers us in words a child’s pre-language experience:
I once saw a baby catching sunlight in his hands—
everywhere the child touched
he laughed at what he could not touch
until language wheeled his pram away
and he learned that silhouettes and sun
were called chair and where.
Different languages for suffering, how it is shaped and wrought by the mind and body, are explored with astute and compassionate insight in Michelangelo’s Prisoners. We see in ‘Hysterical Blindness’ a code for surviving trauma where:
Her eyes punch back memory
as though what has happened
happens only if you look.
This is contrasted on the next page with ‘Amok-runner’s Mother’, a monologue of a mother perplexed by the violent gaze of the media and by its images of the victim’s female relatives. She survives the distress of her son’s killing spree by making him and his victims the ceaseless subject of painful rumination while protecting herself from the full, violent separation of his loss:
and still I call his murders—mine.
I leave sound on
for emptiness, too, is a violent companion.
In ‘Cancer Poem’, language’s multiplicities and apparent freedom offer solace from the painful bondage to a body scarred by breast cancer:
Need no one. Need words that are
shuffled for comfort, meanings that multiply
defying the rudderless air.
A refusal to be pinned by male aesthetic portrayals of women, and investing in the creative process and its constant movement seem means of resilience in ‘Michelangelo’s Prisoners’:
She will look her father in the eye
a clear gaze which travels into his
so that he remembers Florence
left his prisoners unfinished
to state with impossible perfection\
that it is not the anguish of the chiselled stone
It is the standing-still which kills.
Poems selected from Cabramatta/Cudmirrah take the reader on a road journey where Harrison is uneasily distant from, and somewhat repelled by a return to her childhood suburb of Cabramatta where ‘furry dice swing’, ‘my grandmother serves tea on a plastic cloth’, and ‘ceramic ducks fly by trifecta on the wall/ the plastic roses smell of tripe’.
The road shapes this sequence; we are moved through the rub of the real as Harrison revisits the suburb where as a teenager she breathed roadie culture. Memory fragments of men and adolescent boys are charged with danger and animal physicality: ‘I saw a man decapitated by the guard-rail and from the corner of my eye I watched/ a bikie gang called the rats, each a silver-studded/dirty-jeaned, black booted grizzly/ gulping beer as they lounged over petrol tanks/like they were shiny young bulls’.
The road also conveys the flattening predictability of suburbs where ‘your car’s a burrow’ and where ‘this road flattens/sterilizes everything—an efficient /movement of cartilage, stretch of vocal cord/even the wind can’t alter the pitch of its voice’. The road as metaphor allows the poet’s engine–mind to become the subject of its own travel:
travelling now for years
without arriving at the place you left
you can’t arrive because it’s gone
and possibly did not exist…
Towards the end of the poem, the poet finds an uneasy identification with the ignition of the engine, the attention-seeking car and the rhythm of the ride. All seem akin to the journey of making a poem. The final repetition of the jingle underlines her control as driver–poet as she evokes, yet drives away from, a world where little has changed:
the minute you put a key
in the ignition
a word on a page
you feel the engine strip down…
and the rhythm of your words
finds you pronouncing what you know:
it’s King John here calling for a copy
you flick I’ll switch
go down Brother Butch
go down Brother Butch
Harrison is literally closer to her childhood in the selection from Cudmirrah: up close and intimate, as opposed to distant and travelling through. She stays to investigate the subtle detail in the micro-world of rockpools, examines sea creatures and her memories of foraging in the sea. In its formlessness and random offering of tiny treasures the sea seems a metaphor for the unconscious mind. All this is the opposite of the predictable and crass she finds in the suburbs, as is her intimate memories of childhood conversations with her grandmother, and Moss Wickham, a childhood mentor and gypsy of sorts. Her investigations often include her fascination with adult perception and memory. In ‘Rockpools Referred To and Illustrated’ she nestles in the lull of rockpools:
I lie between backshore
and foreshore (as though between
the pages of a scarcely remembered
The shells of her childhood are recalled through a culturally referenced lens that is afloat with her adult love of language such that words, like shells, become celebrated things of fascination:
And tapestry cockles
with vestments of Florence
(oceanic scribbled faces
anti waistcoats from Portugal
lips from a brothel…
Her stream of consciousness leads to the insight that the rockpools ‘are boring now’. The poem ends with the somewhat clichéd ‘It depends what you see when you look’.
An investigation into how her childhood imagination (with its story making and language play) is its own fecund journey away from, yet also representing, the primitive world of the body is found in ‘Electra’:
flat on my back, as an animal does, and
hundreds of kingfish swim in fertile pairs
gliding over wrecks where gold coins
dance in the fists of statues
Poems selected from Dear B, her third collection, comprise a long sequence titled ‘Boston Poems’, likely written sometime prior to the publication of her first collection. These poems are often memoir fragments, accessible and immediately affecting. For example, in ‘Diary, Boston, October 1190–June 1991’:
I ask questions
but more arrive
later when I’m at home
alone in the dark with my cells
There is also a long sequence of ‘poems as letters’ each titled ‘Dear B.’ This collection has been named by some reviewers as her weakest, yet Dear B was short listed in the poetry category for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the ACT Book of the Year Award and The Age Book of the Year Award. The loose narrative coherence around the themes of suffering and survival, the particularity of place, and the raw pain of the cancer poems likely made it distinctive.
Sometimes poets find the perfect container to hold the content of their poem and sometimes, even more rarely, a perfect container across a whole collection is found. Folly & Grief is a dazzling example of the latter. Its blurb describes the collection as ‘beauty under pressure’, a descriptor that captures something of what good poetry is: distilled emotion and tensions held by the precision of word-music, line and form. The definition acknowledges that effort is exerted to effect this balance.
The street performer motif is perfect for Harrison in so many ways: it showcases her strengths of mental agility and capacity for acute, humane observation of other people. It is also a rich way to explore her ‘looking over her own shoulder’ self-awareness. As poet, she is observer/mirror/audience and performer. The street performer motif allows examination of language as the purveyor of human truths and its slippery, shiny, fabulous capacity for play, artifice and disguise.
This selection from Folly & Grief omits the longer, more meditative poems. We are treated to an exotic, glittering, array of lively characters and beautiful artefacts presented with precise, imagist language and occasional flashes into the surreal. The poems are in free verse and almost all of those included have the precision of a regular stanza structure. Harrison’s cultural erudition, her considerable experience as world traveller and her interest in how language’s multiplicities offer freedom, inner travel and play all come together within the street performer motif. The success of this collection lies in the way that the poems’ polish, energy and agility match that of their subjects.
‘Funambulist’, the first poem contains in microcosm many of elements of this collection. Harrison seems closely identified with this tightrope walker, whose task is not to touch for pleasure, but rather to locate the performer within a structure and design: ‘we have touched only the details of maps’. It is a place of work, and perhaps of self-prescribed healing. The funambulist carries:
a black cat, a peacock, a box of rain,
a streak of lightning,
a ladder, a pipe, a coffin, a fan,
a pumpkin, a skull, a book of law.
The list of words evokes the sensual quality of real objects, as well as their symbolic, mythic, magical properties. Harrison’s list focuses on language’s mutability; on its capacity to carry the weight of our mortality and its magical ability to transcend it. As this poem progresses its sings increasingly within each line with alliteration and assonance, taps with end rhyme, and momentum carries like a roll call into battle:
and a globe, a bag of nails, a carton of crème,
a rolypoly of doves.
I carry the city, the cleft mirror,
the faked fight of the fist on the drum.
The final, resonant ‘the faked fight of the fist on the drum’, evokes the control and tension of art’s balance between violent inner impulses and order.
In ‘Hand, Chainsaw And Head’, Harrison balances mothering her soon-bored children with her entrancement in a juggler’s ‘steady touch’ of ‘ a macabre salad’ of ‘chainsaw, a rubber hand and plastic head’. Then, like the performing artists, she too is travelling (driving her children home). She observes, with consummate skill as poet, how nature is both a quiet performer (‘A star drags the ceiling of a cloud’) and an observer: ‘Wanting to be entertained, the landscape leans in—watching’. As the juggler–driver, she is alert to how close safety is to menace as laden lorries ‘sweep past like mescaline thunder’ and inner demons may lurk inside ‘The gossip of a child asleep’. This poem’s long-lined tercets balance the quiet tensions, the three things juggled and the three main players (Unfortunately, due to editorial problems, the effect is a little marred by one stanza losing its three-line structure.)
It is no great surprise to see that Harrison’s tighter lines and regular stanza structures in Folly & Grief progress to even greater use of form in her new collection. Nor does it come as a surprise that there are two long themed sequences; they appear in her earlier collections Dear B and Cabramatta/ Cudmirrah. The second sequence, ‘Colombine’ centres on the major female character from Commedia Dell Arte. She is the wife of Pierrot and the lover of Harlequin.
Colombine’s story is structured, almost mannered, by twelve–line poems divided into three quatrains. Each poem is linked with the next; a phrase from the proceeding poem becomes the title of each successive poem. The container melds with the cultural artifice of Colombine herself and is the starting point to investigate her. How do you understand someone who is both a mask and a woman? You have to inhabit her form and contours: you have to inhabit her bones.
In the first poem, Colombine tells us ‘ I’m a body/frost-stilled to the form of twig, eyelash, grass—all is outline’. Harrison explores how it is possible to be a woman yet also be all artifice, all mask, all a purveyor of the culture she travels through, yet reflecting some the deepest desires of her audience: this is the role of the performance artist.
Colombine’s raison d’etre is disguise, artifice and vagrancy: she lives outside of any community, yet she is also defined by her roles of wife and lover. This love triangle seems represented in the three-stanza structure.
Colombine is not bound to any community or place: she is always moving through. Thus, the Colombine lens refracts via contrast something about how human identity is woven to person, place and community. It is an ambitious, complex work: at times obscure, often achingly beautiful and often moving, because Colombine is a woman; she is replete with desire. She experiences longing, and deep distressing loss as she lives some of the myths and stories from history. They are reborn in her.
Colombine’s story starts with her birth and progresses linearly through time; story fragments are lived and suffered, but over the years, just as a mask and glitter are hard, she also hardens. Colombine’s curlicue and ornate language of artifice (what else could it be?) is replete with metaphor and symbol, and often tied to historica, mythic fragments. We learn of her husband Pierrot’s aesthetic purity: ‘He sleeps immaculately in the dark, bathed in glow/like winter branches under snow’. He is ‘the shadow who wastes between the shroud and the angel’ and ‘In him, there is too much whiteness—too much absence’. She accepts his gift of a Chinese bowl: sensuous, erotically charged, elegant, fragile: cracked yet still whole:
Long-tailed birds wash their feathers against
the bowl’s celadon hip. It has washed against me
like a cuttlefish; like the precious amethyst of a bishop’s ring.
It’s cut my heart with its shimmer, its flaws of skin—
I am sunk into the drowned flower of its sex,
hurt by the crack, licked by the lip; the rim copper bound.
The apparent cost of drinking from it, is to suckle and then lose her infant daughter to the plague. Named ‘Genevieve, /‘white wave’’, she becomes, like the child’s father, out of the reach of Colombine’s desire. With a shocking, self-empowering action she severs her breast ‘the sense I loved best: its tickle/ beneath Pierrot’s thumb—its milky amaranth’. This action and its consequences evoke the self-blinding of Oedipus, and the singing of Orpheus. She ‘fashions a new breast from wool’ and embroiders it with scenes from her porcelain bowl. Unlike freer Orphic singing, her destiny is to harden progressively: ‘she is gravel collected’.
Colombine remains elusive, but as a performer of stories she carries the possibilities for her rebirth and survival. As Colombine exits, Harrison as story teller returns something of the private woman behind the mask:
…She tells a story already told.
Elsewhere she might be whole. In her story. Not here.
Poems encountered in any new and selected invite a measuring of each against the others: some as stand-alone are obscure and lean towards prose. Yet, ‘Colombine’ as a sequence is a remarkable, original achievement and is worthy of being extended and published as a single volume. When ‘Colombine’ stands alone her resistance to easy meanings can be better understood on her own terms.
Harrison’s poetic concerns are somewhat encapsulated in ‘Fugue’ a sequence of seven pantoums (within the larger section titled ‘Fugue’). The form of the pantoum seems organic yet integrates an ancient cultural heritage. It provides a kind of endless recurrence, waves that both bring in and take out, and so the form is ideally suited to elegy and memory. The repeated lines bring greater musicality. The greater constraint, and perhaps the organic form of the pantoum, give rise here to simpler language which is at times unusually outspoken. Comment about asylum seekers, and sexual relationships among some male prisoners in Changi are found here. There are also pantoums in which colour and symbol drift memories of emotionally complex nuance from her childhood.
Her recurring interest in place is found in the ‘Fugue’ section. Harrison is located within her family while journeying locally and abroad. These poems seem confident, at ease, closely observed, playful, at times even humorous. The rubber hand juggled in Folly & Grief and perhaps a mannered Colombine are re-found with softer edges in ‘Busker And Chihuahua, Chapel Street’:
and his white Chihuahua elegantly avoiding all eyes—
disdainful as a mannequin to out-mannequin God.
The poem ends on the image of the busker’s glove ‘tossed on a pale blue blanket/like a hand begging all alone on the sea’.
In Colombine, New & Selected Poems, themes and characters recur and within some new poems, lines repeat as part of the form. In its entirety, this volume is somewhat like the sea itself. Where will Harrison travel next? Perhaps her process will be like that of the roadside potter, ‘pushing each cup to the point of destruction’—with all the grit and glitter of Colombine herself.
SUSAN FEALY is a writer and clinical psychologist who lives in Melbourne. She is the winner of the 2010 Henry Kendall Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared The Best Australian Poems 2009 and The Best Australian Poems 2010.