TEXT review

Cut glass dancing

review by Dominique Hecq


Rose Lucas
Unexpected Clearing
University of Western Australia Publishing, Crawley WA 2015
ISBN 9781742588056
Pb 111pp AUD25.00


The Australian poet Joanne Burns once wrote: ‘poetry never sits still on the page … even before you have started to read it you have entered another world, another place, another language’ (Burns 1999: 4). And before you know it, you are dancing. Poetry cuts through the edges of past and present. It makes its own choreography. The dance happens in the now. This is what it feels like to read Rose Lucas’s new collection, Unexpected Clearings (2015). The poems all effortlessly pass the litmus test of sharp and strong poetry. As Amanda Joy rightly states on the back cover of the book: ‘Rhythm and pattern follow with precision the rich tonality of Lucas’s visual and aural perceptions, delivered with just enough tension to allow a line to run free or a word to drop and hang alone where it dances, or stops’. But, of course! Why should we be surprised?

Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet, writer and academic who teaches poetry and editing at Victoria University. As a teacher, she is loved and revered. As a scholar, she is widely published in the areas of women’s poetry, feminism, psychoanalysis, literary theory as well as cinema studies. Indeed, having co-authored Bridgings: Readings in Australian Women’s Poetry with Lyn McCredden in 1996, she may be said to be one of Australia’s pioneer self-consciously feminist authors working across disciplines. These theoretical interests and political concerns inform her creative work and firmly inscribe her in the lineage of writers such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (2013), won the 2014 Mary Gilmore Award for Poetry awarded by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. A major accomplishment, needless to say.

Unexpected clearing shows Rose Lucas as the purveyor of a poetic universe where culture and nature, intellect and feeling, reason and intuition intermingle. It would be facile to dwell on the images and emotions held at the core of her name, so I will refrain from all poetic and etymological flights in that domain. Suffice to say, she brings to her subjects a discernment which is astute yet passionate; an intensity which is lens-like in its ability to capture the tensions of a life lived shifting between real and imagined worlds. Loss, impending or accomplished, grief, displacement and longing are dominant themes, though the possibility of home and the exhilaration of travel are invoked again and again, like flashes of light among the shadows that inhabit the four parts of this book: ‘Unexpected clearing’, ‘Night road’, ‘Still beating heart’, and ‘Tracking the bay’.

Even when Lucas invokes works of art or cultural artefacts, as she does, especially in the first part of the collection, she is never content with descriptions of art works or meditations or their effect upon the viewer. Rather, she draws out subtleties of meaning, animating sounds and images, exploring and interpreting realities which speak of what it means to be human. For example, ‘A capella’, ‘Balancing’ and the ‘Monet Series’ all emanate from work heard, seen, or remembered to challenge the imagination to rove and deliver its verdict – aesthetic, philosophical, emotional, or otherwise. However, she is acutely aware that nothing can really be pinned down by language, that indeterminacy prevails. This is beautifully articulated in what some might see as art’s riposte to science, ‘What Isaac Newton Saw’:

an ordinary miracle that needs a different eye to see it,
           a new tilt of the head, or sudden mood of
equanimity that allows leaves to rustle,
branches to brush the lawn,
a bird to move discretely and even
            try out some autumnal singing – (38)

It is this knowledge of contingency that provides the impetus and emotional power of so many of Lucas’s poems. And, as an aside, this piece is just irresistible for those of us who have been intent on trying to re-define knowledge and research in the field of creative writing and beyond.

Some poems are simply entrancing because of the poise, precision and intensity of the images. ‘In the Louvre’ is a fine example of how Lucas deftly intertwines image with feeling and thought; how she uses understatement and sensibility to uncover the intricacies of the human heart in the context of cultural artefacts:

To know the shining world
of skin and breath,
abstraction of thought and desire
into the gesture of a hand,
the luminosity of marble flesh – (69)

It is a salient feature of Lucas’s work that she never relinquishes engagement with the intimate and personal circumstances in which art acquires significance.

Often, Lucas builds up her poems incrementally, using brief, subtle sequences which let the images bear the emotional weight lightened up by more subtle visual details or attention to sounds. Often, she lets the last line hang, like a tree limb trembling in the air. Hers is a poetry of control, not constraint, for images mostly strike out at unexpected angles, as if through cut glass. Very occasionally, though, this approach leads to predictability or contrivance, as is the case in the opening to ‘Giverny’: ‘Avenues of colour – / your composed cultivations, / the fertile texture of loam’ (8). Here the understated ‘Avenues of colour’ clash with the contrived ‘composed cultivations’ because of the quaintness and odd rhythmic patter of the noun ‘cultivation’. This awkward transition is redeemed by the following lines: ‘the fertile texture of loam / where children have tumbled seeds / spilling across’ (8). And then Lucas surprises you. She does it the other way around: a feeling is followed by a waterfall of images. Witness how the gorgeous ‘Unkiltered’ cascades:


the rising thought of you –

           a sudden wildness in the air;
                                 ozone, sultriness,
                    austere chill of flurry,
 quiet, white world –

you slip my planet side-
turning its winds,
           chinook across wide plains,
human breath on frosty glass; (46)

Rose Lucas’s poems engage the reader through an intimacy of tone and voice and through her ability to give expression to a range of emotions, including the wide gamut of these grief commands in the poignant pieces dealing with her mother’s ‘slips of mind and mood’ (75) brought about by the ‘infirmity … cage’ of old age and decline.

Lucas is a poet of great elegance and self-control whose work is remarkably devoid of affectation. Her poetry probes experience and startles in unexpected ways. It is grounded, yet refined. Intense yet lyrical. ‘These hands’ (70) could be said to act as an allegorical enactment of her approach. It displays and dramatises the intense power of the imagery as it moves from ‘how they [the hands] curl around the arc of your shoulder / in the quietly breathing night’ to images of connection and release with ‘the wild clasp of giving / and taking’ all the while aspiring to higher realms as when the pen fingers hold ‘quivers like an arrow / poised / ready to fly and find out / the fleeting mark’ (70). The emotional delivery of the last image, which encapsulates the ‘finer art / than elegance’ these hands has ‘learned’, is simply stunning.


Works cited



The Book of Elsa, Dominique Hecq’s mythically inflected novel, was published in 2000. Since then, she has published three collections of short fiction, five books of poetry, and one CD with the assistance of sound artist Catherine Clover. Two of her plays have been performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Recent work since Out of Bounds (2009) and Stretchmarks of Sun (2015) increasingly pursues polygeneric concerns. Hush, a ‘work in progress’ for twenty-one years, pushes this formal concern even further. It will be released in 2017.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste