TEXT review


A luminous cartography: Libby Hart’s floating landscapes

review by Jo Langdon

 

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Libby Hart     
This Floating World
Five Islands Press, Melbourne 2011
ISBN 9780734041999
Pb 77pp AUD21.95

 

Libby Hart’s This Floating World was published by Five Islands Press in 2011, and, reading it then, my early impression of this collection was that these are simply beautiful poems, which is also to say that the apparent simplicity of this book is one of its major strengths. Hart’s verse is delicate and pared back, demonstrating a lyricism that exercises restraint. There is also a familiarity to the language and the imagery, which is not to imply unoriginality; rather, Hart interrogates and revises images and likenesses often taken for granted; over- or misused.

Revisiting these poems, I’m reminded of the intimacy of Hart’s work, which is at the same time outward looking rather than conceited or confessional. An overture of four poems is followed by a sequence or ‘songline’, which takes the reader on a tour of Ireland, with a focus on its inhabitants and elements. Reading This Floating World, I’m also struck by how fitting it is that Hart has guest-edited the recent INTERLOCUTOR issue of Cordite Poetry Review (November, 2012). Hart’s collection resonates with a plurality of voices. There are human and ghostly presences, many of them longing and lonely, alongside animals and personifications of the landscape, most frequently the wind, rain, and ocean waves.

Numerous poems begin with a conjunction such as ‘and’, as if picking up a previous conversation where it left off, as in ‘How like’, a poem from the book’s first section, which begins: ‘And I’m wondering about your face, / how it alters when a mood takes hold’ (17). Later poems from the songline are in direct dialogue with one another, such as ‘Widower sitting on the edge of his bed – Kinsale’, which is followed by a poem called ‘His wife, as ghost’.
The titles of some poems could almost double as script directions: ‘His wife, in a low voice’, ‘Husband to his wife – Westport’, and ‘Daylight, speaking to the wind’, to name just a few. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that prior to its book-length publication, This Floating World was dramatised by Teresa Bell and Gavin Blatchford in 2010. The collection’s numerous voices speak to the openness of this work, and its adaptability; how beautifully the sequence might lend itself to such collaboration, and to multiple and various audiences through these different mediums.

Along with the feeling that these poems are staged in a theatrical sense, there is a musicality at play here as well which is most explicit in the poem ‘A man singing softly to himself in the rain – Cavan’, which reads like a song lyric, particularly where it repeats, in full, the poem’s second stanza at the end, much like a refrain. Indeed, playful repetitions skip all the way through Hart’s collection, layering, altering or amending the imagery, scenes and conversations as they unfold. In the opening poem from the book’s four-poem overture, ‘If I were to build a heart’, there is ‘steam and all things steamy’ (15); in the poem ‘Wave upon wave – off the coast of Donegal’, we read that there is ‘rain and rain, and rain approaching’ (25).

These repetitions provide the collection as a whole with both fluidity and cohesion; images loop back and forth, and Hart maps a space that is both intimate and at times fleeting, constructed and voiced by its cast of uncertain inhabitants. Whether the speaker in ‘Woman having a bath – Coleraine’ might later be ‘The other woman’, for instance, or the voice of another poem, isn’t always clear; nevertheless the openness of meaning distinguishes it from the likes of a more narrative-driven verse novel.

There are ephemeral and uncertain stories layered throughout this collection, yet each poem works individually, as evidenced by the inclusion of a number of them in Felicity Plunkett’s Thirty Australian Poets anthology (Plunkett 2011), and their publication in journals and magazines – both in Australia and overseas – prior to the release of This Floating World. This openness extends to most of Hart’s endings; final lines which are not ‘punch lines’, nor which contrive some kind of resolution or epiphany. That these images and voices are seen and heard is, in a way, more important than what they might have to say or reveal to us – if anything.

As suggested at the beginning of this review, Hart’s work also demonstrates an interest in the way language operates – the way writing often looks to or relies upon one image or meaning in order to forge or convey another. Hart’s poetry often questions such likenesses, how one image or meaning might rely upon another, and at times unnecessarily or misleadingly so. In the poem ‘How like’, for instance, a series of striking yet sparse similes – ‘Such a changeling / like a sparrow, like a burning flutter,’ – are defamiliarised by: ‘How like a stretched metaphor you are’; ‘How like etcetera in the tall, green grasses’; and ‘How like a slipperiness of truth slithering by and by’ (17).

Hart’s metaphors echo and repeat, but rarely feel stretched or confused, as in the poem ‘Lover – Donegal’, which begins:

And just after you come
you hold my hands and we turn into tangles,
limbs like ribbons. (35)

This imagery is continued through to the poem’s end, with words such as ‘tie’, ‘knot’, ‘laced’, ‘threaded’, ‘looped’ and ‘float’ signalling the lovers’ intimacy. There is consistency, without predictability.

It’s also worth noting how seamlessly the book’s production complements Hart’s poetry. Indeed, Five Islands Press are continuing to publish aesthetically pleasing collections, with Claire Potter’s Swallow, Michelle Cahill’s Vishvarūpa and Lisa Jacobson’s The Sunlit Zone among other beautifully produced titles of the last few years. In This Floating World, the stunning cover image by photo artist Samantha Everton is imbued with a strange sensation of floating weightlessly whilst at the same time submerged, saturated. Everton’s image might recall any number of Hart’s voices, although perhaps most notably – to this reviewer at least – it evokes the speaker in ‘The ghost of Bridget Murphy – Ceann Sléibhe’, a poem worth citing in full:

Such darkness nets a memory

of how my father once
threw me into the sea.

Just an infant, I sank like a pebble
and lived inside a liquid room.

Its ceiling was the swell of wave
and even though he changed his mind

I fear I became too full of tide
and much too storm-wild.

I had nothing to hold on to. (58)

To conclude, Hart’s book constructs a transient and ghost-permeated map of place and space. It is a text that poses interesting questions regarding our imagining and representation of landscape and those who inhabit it.

 

Works cited

 

 

Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poems, Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012). She currently lives in Geelong where she is undertaking postgraduate studies at Deakin University.

 

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TEXT
Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
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