Strong writing seldom wins prizes. That
should be news to no-one, the very strength of the artist's vision countermanding
what is, after all, merely an elaborate exercise in establishing the
mean. There is always the exception to prove the rule, however, and Libby
Hart's poetic suite, the title poem of this all-too-brief collection,
was exactly that for the Somerset Prize last year.
It is an epic, multi-layered piece full of tone and nuance that left this reviewer a little breathless at the end.
In fact I had to keep catching myself and asking what was really going on here. It has been a long time since a poem by an Australian poet had that effect on me. "There it is, that dark shadow flitting under the ice." I have read the poem through many times and have already learnt to treasure it, to treat it as a friend trying to tell me something in the careful measured tones of one who perhaps cares a little too much. I'm perpetually suited to the idea of this land:
only my mind has other plans.
In every sense, I see this as my failing.
The voice is both seduced and repelled by this place, this Arctos of somnolent mantra, not so much in an attempt to remind oneself of the reality as to conjure a backdrop worthy of the wastes within.
I hear the years of vacant possession,
the poetics of empty space,
of the dust settling.
I'm not sure
if I'm the haunted
or if I'm doing the haunting.
In the end the poem is strangely triumphant. The voice has escaped from its arctic wastes:
A tiger moth swoops low,
a fiery phoenix, it burns a patch of sky.
I follow earnestly
Edging my way toward the timberline,
remembering that it's better to travel
hopefully than to arrive safely.
And suddenly, "moth-like, I reach out to oncoming traffic". The reader finds themselves jarred awake, staring into an empty glass, a darkened room, their fog on a mirror.
Because the arctic world the poet creates is at once so vivid and so surreal it is not an easy thing to let go of. We are taken to a place, the story, the very origin of story. It is really that good. Haven't we all felt the cold breath of Arctos, listened to its howling in our troubled sleep?
This is just the opening, mind you. The rest of the collection does not disappoint by any means, but it is tragically short at only fifty pages, so those first seven pages really do set the rhythm and key for better or worse. I read the whole book through twice in a morning and spent the entire day mulling over Hart's peculiar melding of sound and idea. I'm sure there are those lining up to write this off as the usual writing school fare, and perhaps I may have been one of them once. But it seems the older I get the softer I get, and the keener I am to give a good storyteller their due:
His hand moves roundly
A quick and assured gap of life
on a vivid sheet of paper.
The poet here is fused with some lost cartographer, some hidebound navigator – the James Cook of Slessor's vision? - until we are not so sure who is looking longingly toward "a bed that is unmade, yet inviting." The world, the mind, a mattress in the corner?
In the end, perhaps what sets this collection apart from all those well-intentioned, carefully-crafted, ultimately timid and hollow collections being ferried out of the writing schools is that the poet here seems genuinely caught between one breath and the next, transfixed like a moth in a darkened room.
It starts with an untidy map
held within skin,
deep and heavy on the head
And becomes an avenue of this, a river of that
a crossroad, meeting between eyebrow
curved and bent beyond recognition;
at cheek and chin,
drawing the mouth into recess.
Eyes are unexplored terrain
while hair, always neater than the face,
reaches for sky.
This is not dodging, or masking, or any other type of obfuscation, but a song from the heart squeezed between the bars. It is a rare and special gift.
– Justin Lowe, Thylazine
These are poems attuned to our tough yet fragile planet. Feelingly, they celebrate its loam and snow, travelled seas, and the inexhaustible theatre of sky.
– Chris Wallace-Crabbe
These warm, spare poems move exquisitely
between memory, imagination and history: from the Arctic Circle to Virginia
Woolf, from two fruits and ice cream to kangaroos in Paris. Libby Hart
understands that poetry is language on the point of evocation, intent
on “murmuring the world, grasping it slowly”. She is indeed
a poet to watch.
– Lisa Jacobson
Vivid, strong, sinuous, beautifully rendered. Highly memorable and compelling.
– Mikhail Iossel, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Libby Hart’s poems possess a contemplative stillness and subtlety, giving them the impression of an “unfolding” of meaning as the work is read and reread. Hart is not a “wordy” poet; rather, the lines are sparse and considered, each word weighty and carefully chosen. This is her first collection, and it is a worthy one.
The title poem, ‘Fresh News from the Arctic’, is essentially a love poem to nature, in this case Antarctica. But it is also a meditation on life. The poet has “an apparition at my shoulder'” (p.3); she is “listening to the slow shattering of my life. She is “waiting for inner resolution” that “must come like a mast, like a sail; / with an almighty north wind, / prodigious and impressive” (p.4). Thus the poem juxtaposes an impressive, overwhelming and concrete natural world against the poet’s inner, unresolved emotional world, creating a kind of tension that speaks to human uncertainty.
This nine part title sequence won the Somerset National Poetry Prize in 2005; it’s easy to see why it would have appealed to the judges, as its concerns are both personal and universal.
Appealing also—especially to the Australian audience—is the long poem ‘Nicolas Baudin’ (pp.39-44), which recounts an attempt by Baudin to transport seven kangaroos (“as quiet as folded hands”) to Paris for the Empress Josephine to add to her menagerie, her “collection of pure pleasure”. It seems a reckless undertaking; in the event only two kangaroos survive the journey and Baudin, after witnessing the death of one of his charges, himself dies at sea (“... his body is placed / in a hasty coffin, and / dug deep / inside a snug anchor / of forgetfulness” (p.42). But what seems to intrigue the author is that these two kangaroos became accustomed to their new environment, became “the very embodiment of relaxation”, and “lazed on their sides / like misshapen and ancient stones” (p.43). They reproduced to the extent that wild kangaroos—“generations of escapees”—apparently now inhabit Rambouillet Forest, near the town of Emance. The poem ends on this nicely rounded note: “Josephine / would’ve been pleased / to have a legacy / so close to Paris / but, more importantly, / Baudin would be delighted / the edges of his mouth / curling into a small boat / at the very thought of it; and / at the obstinate nature / of the peaceful creatures / that don't complain (p.44).” In both these long poems, the imagery of a boat reinforces the notion of gloabl travel through bth the world and the senses.
The other substantial, long poem in the collection, ‘The Anatomy of Clouds’ (pp 9-12) uses the language of meteorology to describe the subtleties of the spoken and unspoken things in a relationship as a man and a woman become a couple. The different types of cloud and cloud activity are evoked to capture particular emotions (“the nimbus / that holds us together / ... / The softest kind of rain / that lasts all through the day ...” p.10) later becomes
“ ... you grew overcast / shadows blooming to great height, / your cold front meeting my warm like a hailstorm”. As their baby is born, the narrator makes the commitment (perhaps to the partner, perhaps to the child): “ ... here are my pearls of breath / here are my hands / Even in the harshest storm / I will shelter you”.
‘Between’ is a striking rumination on the methods of death employed or encountered by a cast of famous writers (“Henry James writes invisible words over a bedspread / Keats undergoes his long final night / Eugene O’Neill waits to die in a Boston hotel room / ... / ... Hemingway places the gun to his head / while the Brontes drop away / like pearls from a broken necklace” (p.38). Some pieces verge towards the surreal: ‘The Dream Jar’, “heavy with cloud”, seems to resemble Plath’s Bell Jar as a vehicle of restriction (“a tight lid holds conversation well”), and is a repository for a dream of “snails inside each drop of rain” that “ride my toes as hills” (p.29)—a beautiful and unexpected ending to a meditation on emotion. ‘Room of Angels’ is simply descriptive of its title, introducing a roomful of angels in a room “so small ... / our wings are clipped. / Pushed back against spine. / Restless, we ruffle easily” (p.33). This highly visual poem is pure invention, with strangely memorable visual imagery that put this reader in mind of the independent film Northfork.
Other poems deal with a variety of themes, both large and small: science and the rise and fall of theories (‘Darwin's Walk’), odd newspaper stories (‘The Memory Suite’), observation of the way people on trains handle their briefcases (‘The Briefcase Phenomenon’), a descriptive piece on a well-known face (‘Samuel Becket’s Wrinkles’), and an imaginary account of what is going through the mind of an acrobat performing for a crowd (‘Tightrope Walker’).
Libby Hart’s Fresh News From The Arctic is a small but significant collection of poetry that is engaging, thought-provoking, sometimes wryly humorous, and that demands reading and rereading to uncover the delicate nuances hidden so artfully within its language.
— Liz Hall-Downs, Compulsive Reader
Highly Commended, IP Picks 2006, Best Poetry.
Resonant and delicate, Fresh News from the Arctic offers a finely wrought sensibility which elevates the subtle topography of life’s quiet events.
This is a collection that investigates the human experience, parting the veil of the mundane to reveal passion, beauty, myth and mystery.
At once atmospheric, with a surreal blend of emotion and memory, Fresh News from the Arctic is a fluid and ever-shifting landscape of possibilities. These poems are restless and inquisitive. They echo a desire to forge a voice that is as curious as it is distinctive.
Libby Hart was a recipient of a D J O’Hearn
Memorial Fellowship at The Australian Centre, University of Melbourne (2003).
Her suite of poems, Fresh News from the Arctic, won the Somerset National Poetry Prize (2005).
Libby’s poems have appeared widely in both Australian and overseas publications.