Tranter reviews Wright and Rodriguez, 1977

Through ‘European’ eyes
Tranter reviews Wright and Rodriguez, 1977

First published in The Australian, 6-7 August 1977 FOURTH QUARTER; poems by Judith Wright; Angus & Robertson,  7.95. WATER LIFE; poems and linocuts by Judith Rodriguez, University of Queensland Press,  5.00 cloth,  2.50 paper.

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Judith Wright is one of Australia’s leading poets, and has been writing verse for more than thirty years. Fourth Quarter is her eleventh volume of poetry. The most obvious thing about this book is that it is a disappointment.

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It is a disappointment mainly because we have been mistaken about what sort of poet Judith Wright is. We have assumed that she is a skilled, contemporary and distinctively Australian poet. Wrong.

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She does write consistently about Australia, and knows the scenery intimately, but her viewpoint is basically European. In two poems — ‘Easter Moon’ and ‘Owl and Swamp Plant’ — she talks about Australia as being ‘upside-down.’ From our viewpoint we are not ‘upside-down’, Britain is.

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It is a mark of the generation brought up exclusively on English school-book poetry to see our country as ‘the Antipodes,’ and a book that drags in the names Selene, Domina, Psyche, Procne, Alcyone, Persephone and Anadyomene belongs more fittingly to the England of a hundred years ago than to today’s Australia.

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Her main faults, it seems to me, are this Eurocentric attitude, a careless use of inappropriate though grand-sounding metaphor, and a tendency to try to elevate the mundane above its proper height. These do not appear as faults as long as they are confined to their place of origin, which is the romantic philosophical nature poetry of the 19th century.

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This, given a few modifications, is the kind of poetry Judith Wright does well. In this book, though, she has chosen to update her style and subject matter. Among other things she writes of present-day Canberra, military aircraft, highway by-passes, oil refineries, Coca-Cola and plastic toys.

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In many of the poems she has abandoned the strict forms that gave her earlier poetry a pleasing symmetry, and attempts a kind of free verse. ‘For the conscientious craftsman,’ Eliot wrote, ‘no vers is truly libre.’

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It would seem, from some of the examples in this book, that her craftsmanship goes no further than the orthodox forms of the last century, for her essays into free verse are so clumsy as to be embarrassing. In one poem, ‘Tightropes’, she says, ‘Free verse is harder to bring off than rhyme,’ then proves the point by failing to ‘bring off’ many poems in the book.

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More important than her failing to come to grips with what is for her a new technique is the general clumsiness of her thought processes.

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For example, in ‘Fourth Quarter’, the first poem in the book, she writes about the moon waning, and the general effect of ageing on her life. ‘But there’s still gold to win,’ she says, ‘from the mullock’s clay.’

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By which, I suppose, she means that there are still worthwhile things to do in life. But why the intrusion of a metaphor based on the gold-mining industry, in a short poem about the moon? The image does have a profound ring about it, but it adds little to the poem other than the effect of a type of verbal embroidery.

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It’s a cheap and easy way of making what you want to say sound more important than it is. This type of careless circumlocution has always been with us, but it’s a pity to find a poet of Judith Wright’s long experience indulging in it.

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Another fault in this book is an inability to find the right balance between the high and middle tone; ‘The gods are seldom seen in pubs,’ she announces at one stage, bringing the profound and the banal together with an effect rather like that of Nureyev slipping on a prawn roll.

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But I shouldn’t pick too many holes in this book. Angus & Robertson are partly to blame for letting so many poor poems slip past their editorial net (and for the exorbitant price).

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No doubt Judith Wright will recover from what is after all a momentary stumble in an otherwise vigorous and surefooted career.

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Her skills are still clearly in evidence in such poems as ‘Half Dream’ and ‘Cold Night’, and she has shown a willingness to grapple with important contemporary issues.

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Judith Rodriguez continues her observations of domestic life in her third collection of poems, Water Life. In one poem ‘The Rugs’, she says. ‘Of trees and rooms to write/ is easier done than not,’ though her tightly-knotted lines make it look anything but easy.

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She writes mainly about marriage, children and suburban events in the first part of the book, and about seas, rivers, creeks and the creatures that inhabit them in the second. Occasionally she ranges further afield, as in ‘Penelope at Sparta,’ ‘Borges at 73’, and ‘Chile 1973’, and in these poems she deals with history, politics and art quite effectively.

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Her main concerns are domestic, however, and she seems most at home when at home. One poem, ‘Water a Thousand Feet Deep’, is set, literally, at the kitchen sink.

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In this type of poem she is developing the themes of her earlier poems such as the well-known Nu-Plastic Fanfare Red, though I am pleased to say to much better effect.

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The two main problems of this kind of poetry are how to hold the audience’s interest over a number of books — suburban life is notoriously uneventful — and how to develop as a writer while dealing with a low-key subject.

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She has gone some way to solving these problems by deepening the intensity of her technique and her preoccupations.

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The poem ‘About This Woman’ is a good example of the risks she is prepared to take with a simple self-portrait:

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About this woman: green-eyed
and could not give them to her children,
caresses her friends in thought,
doubts they do likewise, malingers
and charms in fits and starts,
dies daily.

About this woman: wears no ring.
Hangs on her husband, hang him, to be
the husband he could be, if he was;
if it takes fifty years. Faithfully
mangles him in words and thought, precarious
vindications.

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Sometimes in this book the metaphors are a little labored and the conceits contrived, and the language is often burdened by too many adjectives and too few articles, pronouns and conjunctions. This makes many of the poems tangled and difficult to read, but it seems to me that this is the result of an honest attempt to give shape to a complex experience, and not the confusions of an overblown rhetoric.