Knowles’ poems are almost always about places and people rather than her own responses... persuasive character studies of people who seem to be very different from the author herself, even though she sees them all sympathetically. Lee Knowles is a poet who creates her own world... she deserves to be much better known.
– Geoff Page, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry
Lee Knowles has ignored ephemeral poetic fashions and has shown a quiet and steady dedication to the art. She may also be one of those with whom hope for a regrowth of Australian poetry lies. She has pursued a steady career in publication with the books Cool Summer (1977), Dial Marina (1986), Sirocco Days (1993), all from the Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Lucretia (2007) from Picaro Press, and this latest volume. This is a considerable body of work, including much of high quality. She has also won a number of major poetry prizes. Geoff Page has correctly said that her writing deserves to be much better known. (It will be interesting to see how widely this book is reviewed.)
She combines a real lyrical gift with a feeling for what is important, and her voice is unmistakably her own. Further, unlike many poets who reach a plateau of accomplishment and remain on it, so it is perhaps impossible to tell an early work from a late one, Lee Knowles’s poetry has shown a steady growth of technique, each book an advance on
the one before it.
Lee Knowles has maintained a distinctive and genuinely individual voice, and a predominant theme of her work is the exploration and celebration of individuality.
She and her husband lived for some time aboard an
ocean-going yacht, and for her the sea has always been not merely a symbol but a manifestation of freedom. A recurrent theme of this poetry is an exploration of the drive behind those people who follow new and unusual courses, whether in the mind or in the physical world.
This is not meant to suggest that the work is the stale
and stereotyped caressing of a bohemian non-conformism. Chesterton once said a sage felt too small for the world, and a fool to large for it, and these poems have also a kind of wise wonder at the richness of the world—manifested in, for example, the ceremony of the blessing of the fishing fleet at Fremantle.
Her work reminds me also of the statement by H.G.
Wells that we are so often prisoners of “the paper walls of everyday circumstances”, and if your world doesn’t suit you, you can change it. This is not “message” poetry, but one of the messages it does convey is that the world can be full of richness.
Lee Knowles’s style is unlike that of any other poet
writing in Australia today. A poet should achieve—
along perhaps with other things—a blend of lyricism,
insight, thought and knowledge, but for each real poet
the precise mixture, and the result, is individual and
unique. Carrying on from her excellent collection
Sirocco Days, her poetry is often redolent of mythology, but in a subtle, oblique way. Yet—and how refreshing this is—it is also the poetry of someone who does things:
Under white lights
the ground sleeps where all day
the lifter groaned, plucking boats
from the water and along to lower
them into steel cradles. It straddles
the path and we drive between its
four feet. Heads wrapped, dressed
in white paper moon-suits, these figures
have stood, blasting away at their
impossible desires. This is home
at the top of a ladder …
Although her descriptions of some landscapes—by
which is included seascapes and townscapes—with an affinity for wild and strange corners, are as sharp and unforgettable as any I have seen (The poem “Seal
rocks” is a good example), she is far more than a landscape poet.
There is also near-epic. Like other West Australian-born writers—as well as Douglas Stewart and Mark
O’Connor—she has written major pieces on the massacre on Batavia’s Graveyard on the Abrolhos Islands in 1629, that prequel to the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century which called forth the worst and best in human beings (the “good ones” led by the soldier Webbye Hayes, resisted the mass-murdering, psychopathic mutineers led by Jerome Cornelius with the greatest courage and resource, and ultimately won through against all odds). It is a story from which much may continue to be mined, with the murderous messianic set against the stolid, resourceful and steadfast good man. She made a latter-day exploration of those barren rocks:
This island fends us off as we wade through shallows
sliding as though on jelly. Its beach
edges a white cliff wall—ghosts of friendly faces.
The soldiers, shoved off to this island to die,
up there with their axe-edged rock, the mutineers
where we are. And Pelsaert already returned
from Java, a quick row to his ship beside a sister island.
Any longer and these islands would have swallowed all.
Ruins with packed stones, we say, are forts. One in a hollow, guards a well. Signal fireplaces gaze
across to Beacon. We carry none of the stoicism
of those old soldiers in our backpacks.
The snake that lies at the heart of the well
they chipped away is a sand python.
We scoop it out and wear it on our arms.
There is also close observation of human experience,
with a lyricism that is all too seldom to be found in contemporary poetry, as in “Port City Tales”:
… The father
seldom leaves the counter as though
his feet are stone. A glow
of lamps styled from the Eternal City
falls on the waistcoat
and the gold on the hand
he raises as though in blessing,
the high smile for his son …
Quite different are poems of journeying to Luxor and
visiting the Clan Donald Centre on the Isle of Skye, the
latter a beautiful verbal capturing of thin, high mouth or
This is a rich and intriguing collection. Lee
Knowles’s poetry combines an individual vision and
highly-wrought technique with sometimes profound
cultural resonances. She is also one of those who, by
showing that poetry can still engage important subjects, prove again what the true function of the poet is.
– Hal G.P. Colebatch, Quadrant