Tiffany Tsao reviews The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt
by Sarah Holland-Batt
Reviewed by TIFFANY TSAO
The first poem of Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards provides a fitting opening for a collection so beautiful, so cold, and so much about the coldness of beauty. The eponymous jellyfish speaker of the poem ‘Medusa’ is unapologetically cerebral—‘a brain trailing its nettles’, a mind ‘vain and clear as melting ice’. So much so, in fact, that the speaker seems to exist as a drifting organ of ‘bitter reason’, separate from the organs where the capacity for feeling and compassion reside: the nerves ‘blooming around [it]’ and the soul which ‘billows out like hollow silk’.
One might dare to read the medusa of the poem as avatar for the poet persona. In a 2014 interview with Jacinta Le Plastrier published in Cordite, Holland-Batt remarked on the importance of the cerebral in her composition process: ‘My poems are acts of thinking […] I know that this is different for other poets, who are perhaps more impressionistic and have a more Romantic conception of their own poiesis. For me, writing poetry is a wholly conscious process […]’ (1)
Indeed, the overall tone of the collection is detached, rational. The poems are technically flawless, consistently gorgeous, but often unsettling. For if the poet is the predatory medusa, and by extension, the Medusa of Greek myth who turns the objects of her gaze into stone, then the implication is that poetry-making is as brutal as the paralysis of a hapless victim—the textual equivalent of turning the living into the statuesque dead. Poetry as enacted by The Hazards is premeditated violence. So is art at large, the collection posits, as well as the creation and appreciation of the beautiful in general. And it is this quality of calculated violence, this mingling of the cerebral and visceral, that makes The Hazards so powerful, so disquieting, so moving.
The intertwining of beauty and violence is most apparent in the poems ‘Approaching Paradise’ and ‘Beauty is a Ticket of Admission to All Spectacles’. The first poem reveals that death and pain are fundamental elements of a beach paradise:
You will find paradise in a whiting
drowning in a bucket of freshwater,
in the jammed blade of a fishscale
like quicklime under the thumb.
The sublime requires sacrificial victims: ‘the bloated body washed in’, ‘bikini-clad tourists jerked out by rips,’ and ‘A shark’s slit corpse […] / its head yanked on a hook like a sacrifice. / Its shank is smooth and black as paradise.’ (20)
In the second poem, art’s beauty makes the horrific pleasurable, admitting the imagination even to that ‘you do not want to enter’: gory alternate versions of the scene depicted in Goya’s La muerte del picador in which the bull dies instead; Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes before Klimt paints her portrait. Because of their beauty, ‘[t]hese things are easy to enter’. Slaughter is made bearable, its severity diminished: the speaker remembers a crow her father shot one Easter, ‘the tyranny of its open eye, / as wild and dark as anything’ belying the reality of its defeat.
Paradoxically, entering into another’s experience facilitates disengagement from it. And it is this unexpected pairing of entry with detachment that makes the collection’s take on violence and artistic beauty more than a mere parroting of W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which suggests that emotional detachment is born of an inability to enter into the experience of another. It is by entering into the mind of the concubine in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque that the poet-speaker of ‘Against Ingres’ carries out her own unflinching objectification. There is no sympathy here for the woman, no retrieval of her humanity. Even as we have access to her thoughts—her fellow concubines, the sultan’s garden, ‘fat, lazy Nilüfer who scratched graffiti into the walls’—she remains unsettlingly object-like, inhuman:
her back patient as polished maple,
a line the colour of buttered toast
unfurling down her spine in an arabesque
to her tailbone and buttocks,
which are long and slumberous as a mare’s.
The model may turn her back on Ingres to protect her inner life against ingress. But the poet’s breaching of that inner life, its historical canvas, enables her to enact a more thorough objectification still. Even when we know the woman’s mind, we find, ‘Here there is nothing’.
‘Reclining Nude’ is troubling for the same reason. The painter’s dehumanising of his model comes from a purposeful distancing, a refusal to engage emotionally with the woman he tells ‘to crawl, spread / her legs, grind her arse like a pig’:
She has kernelled another body in her body there,
perhaps one of his, it doesn’t matter, he can’t
remember if he has had her, the point is,
she understands largesse […]
But the poet goes further. She shows us glimpses of the model’s passage from pink girlhood into ‘monstrous’ obesity. She walks us down the fluorescent halls of the model’s dream life. She reveals to us that behind the model’s face, most likely ‘intelligence lives, / here the rational, the sceptical’. And because she is able to access the model’s interior in this way, her cruelty to the model far exceeds that of the painter: if he portrays the woman as grotesque simply because he does not care about her inner being, the poet portrays her as grotesque outside and in, ‘rump, hog, beast’ through and through.
It is by entering that art does its worst violence. Holland-Batt reveals how the several paintings that inspire ‘An Illustrated History of Settlement’ turn the scene of invasion into nothing more than landscape suitable for a picnic: ‘sky boiled’, ‘a choppy wedge’ of water, a black man with ‘a toothpick spear’. The invaders are rendered innocuous by colonial representations: ‘heads knotted with tidy black ribbons’, ‘[f]aces fat with apple-cheeked Englishness’:
This is where the eye enters.
And often leaves.
The Hazards exposes the mechanics by which cruelty is made breathtaking; and in doing so, is itself breathtakingly cruel. But this cruelty reaches almost unbearable levels when the poet-speaker, refusing to spare even her self, turns her own person into the object of infliction. In ‘No End to Images’, it is the speaker who is invaded—by a relentless stream of memories that strip her bare, transmuting her suffering into beauty for the reader’s benefit:
No end to the hour I stood and shook
like a leaf in the shower’s privacy,
no end to my name, snagged like a burr,
no end to the body which is colossally small
with its pains and plainer longings.
No end to grief, never any end to that.
‘The Invention of Ether’ (and its telling title) gives us insight into the attractions of of numbing oneself when the heartbroken ‘I’ still
[…] cling[s] to the sting
like the slobbering octopus
I failed to rescue
from boyish torturers
on a Sicilian beach:
hopelessly suctioned, unable to release.
Aid is found in the anesthetisation of the heart. And if protecting the self from invasion is to be gained only by invading the inner lives of others—probing their interior space to find relief in the coldness of intellectual exercise—then so be it.
‘Desert Pea’ is a sparse poem. Compact like its title, it is a mere page long, composed of ten two-line stanzas. It provides stark contrast to most of the other poems, their language opulent and luxurious and finely tuned, like clockwork nightingales. Nestled in the middle of the collection, it sets down in plain words the theme this review has spent over a thousand words elaborating: the refuge of the intellect in a world where raw experience simply cannot be borne.
I cannot stand
the certain world:
rock grass and thistle,
invading my eye.
Give me night, the stars
streaming past me
huge and soundless.
Give me the silence
of the mind.
1. Jacinta Le Plastrier interviews Sarah Holland-Batt in Cordite, 10/9/2014
TIFFANY TSAO received her PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Her written work includes literary criticism, fiction, poetry, reportage, and essays. She is Indonesia Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, an online literary journal specializing in contemporary world literature and translation.