review by Amy Brown
In her second book of poetry, Lisa Jacobson uses the myth of Icarus as a vessel for carrying the raw subject of Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. As the fires’ ‘litany of loss rouses / earlier griefs that once lay sleeping’ (27), Icarus’s hubristic flight, referred to directly in the opening poem, spawns a rich miscellany of rising and falling motifs. Angels ‘flying in on burning wings / and crashing to the ground’ (29); horses morphing into Pegasus; flighty daughters; sadness ‘flapping away on sullen wings’ (22); birds and insects; Anne Frank’s sister ‘rising like smoke’ (36); the smell of sugar cane … / drifting up’ (39); the dead rising; paper planes; airless fish drifting ‘in the drowning skies, / pointing upwards to heaven or the surface’ (55). The limit between the relative underside and what is above – not merely the geographical equator between northern and southern poles, but a psychic equivalent between the earthy and the ethereal, the domestic and the mythic – is the ultimate obsession of this ambitious and mostly satisfying collection.
Divided into five sections and spanning a broad temporal and geographical scale, South in the World shows how grief, pervasive as smoke, may announce itself in unexpected thoughts or circumstances. In the opening section, autobiographical memories of family members gather heat and a sense of ominous inevitability. The following section catches fire and includes several of the strongest poems in the collection. In the title poem, Jacobson describes hearing of Black Saturday from Switzerland. Structured in a sequence of eight lightly connected memories, the poem juxtaposes a rejuvenating charcoal forest with Chagall’s Green Christ, which:
That Christ drifts upwards like smoke, that the sunlight is temperate, and that the gold leaf halo rises above tree level like an approaching conflagration indicate vividly how this geographically distant Southern Hemisphere disaster finds its way north via the poet’s sympathetic imagination.
Where ‘South in the World’ conveys the metaphorical associations that news of the fire inspires, another highlight of the collection, ‘Calling Up the Dead’, cuts to the literal experience of having one’s land and belongings burnt out. The plainness of the language ensures the dreadful emotion of the subject is neither smothered nor paraded; it exists simply in the facts of the situation; for example:
A year has passed and still she wakes to find
After the intensity of the fire, the final three sections address the loss of the disaster obliquely, via reflections on motherhood, tender portraits of parents, and analyses of sexual relationships; throughout these three sections, the personal experience is measured via an external comparison, be it with the myth of Persephone and Demeter, Wordsworth’s ‘The Leech-Gatherer’, or the story of the Dutch Tulip Bubble.
As well as conscientiously balancing the personal with the universal, Jacobson’s poetry attempts to incarnate the ethereal. In ‘Some Adjustments to the Original Idea’, there is the enchanting observation that
bits of god
When the ‘bit of god’ is vengeful rather than benevolent, fiery rather than Chagall’s Green Christ, Jacobson’s poems find the sublime.
The alps rear high above the lake.
The vastness that confuses and causes distrust reminds the reader of the collection’s opening image: Icarus becoming ‘mesmerised by the sun, bigger now than the / world below’ (3). The subtle internal rhyme and assonance exhibited in the excerpt above crescendos effectively in the title poem, gradually resembling a sort of keening. The aural techniques echo the repetitive sensation of grief as Jacobson depicts it.
‘Fire, fire, fire,’ the people mutter
South in the World has a raw quality that tends to accompany memoir and confession, which was absent from Jacobson’s acclaimed speculative verse novel, The Sunlit Zone. Compared with the narrative control and firm science-fictional concept of her previous book, South in the World appears loosely wrought. At times, this looseness lets the voice dip into sentimentality; the profoundly emotional subject matter is not always served well, when the apparent immediacy of the expression results in cliché (‘there are ghosts of me here’ ). However, generally, it contributes to the immediacy and authenticity of the perspective.
The poems that appear to relinquish a degree of formal control seem to share the honest discomposure of the voice narrating ‘Several Ways to Fall Out of the Sky’. In a series of desperate, oneiric imperatives, the poem instructs: ‘Remember to collect your wings, having noticed the / post-it note on the bench that says “wings”. But in your / haste to take flight, forget to fasten their buckles’ (3). In empathising with those trying to take flight, this collection never flees from the catastrophe of the subject, but rather, Icarus-like, aims directly for the bright, dangerous source of the emotion.
Dr Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet and novelist, who lives in Melbourne. In 2012, she completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, where she now teaches creative writing. Her first book The Propaganda Poster Girl was shortlisted for a New Zealand Book Award in 2009. Her latest book, a contemporary epic poem titled The Odour of Sanctity was published in 2013.
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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins