THE COOL WEB
Empathy and emptiness, prosody and place, in the poetry of Judith Beveridge
A critical meditation on Storm and Honey
There’s a cool web of language winds us in.
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility
—Robert Graves, “The Cool Web”
Delancey had told me
that the creek wasn’t the place to get
answers, but that it would give me
questions as fine as the sediment burrowed
from the mud by the yabbies and crabs.
—Judith Beveridge, “Delancey”
SOME OTHER SHORE
I’M WRITING THIS in a cabin at the coast. Someone else’s coast, in the southwestern corner of the continent, where someone else’s ocean rolls in, sapphire blue and jade green along a limestone shore. The wren that woke me trapezes now on a leggy rosebush and taps at the picture window behind me, making a hectic Morse that says the day is much to good to spend inside writing.
I’m back a bit from the water and up the hill. Between me and the beach, there are cleared fields and marri woods, an old seaside village and a new golfing resort with its clutch of shiny new lakes. In the placid sea there would be jellyfish, sharks, fancy fish with plain names, plain fish with fancy names, and whales. Getting on with it.
You wouldn’t normally need to know all this, but there are a couple of things I want to say about Judith Beveridge’s new book of poems, on which all of this bears: Judith Beveridge’s poetry, which I have been reading here amid these bits and pieces of a coastal landscape, is not the expensive white four-wheel-drive that passes back and forth along the red road as if it’s forgotten how to get out; nor is it the extensive grey weekender down in the flocking fields, a building that would be a temple if this were Tibet or some more prayerful part of the world; it is—her poetry—the calm ecstatic cerulean sky, the dark stands of eucalypts bowing their heads south, the restless pastures, the lapis lazuli wren in the cotoneaster, the pink geraniums and the red ones stepping down the sandstone into the paddock. It is the banjo frog plunking its loose strings in the soak. It is the piping of the honeyeater and the purple of the balaclava this burly green parrot wears against the coolness of the salty wind. Just in case.
Her poems are someone else’s country, made suddenly your own. They are a day too good for writing in, somewhere far from home. They know what this west coast November morning knows; they do what it does to me.
The poems of Judith Beveridge—in particular the poems of Storm and Honey, her new collection—leave me feeling the way Ray Carver felt after a winter storm blew in and knocked out the electricity:
A vast calm
lay over the countryside.
I knew better. But at that moment
I felt I’d never in my life made any
false promises, nor committed
so much as one indecent act. My thoughts
And one knows, like Carver, the weather will turn and the moment will pass; but one knows the poems won’t. Another book I’ve been reading here in the sun is Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. Somewhere in it, Philip Marlowe says, “I had seen Moose Malloy’s work, and it was the kind that stayed done.” It’s the same with Judith Beveridge, though body mass has less to do with it in her case. More like a lifetime’s apprenticeship to poetry—the sustained observance of the disciplines of beauty.
There’s no question that the poems in Storm and Honey are the very best work of one of the very best poets writing in English. They take you where only poetry can go—deep into the mind of the world, deep into the dream life of your own better self.
But there’s another reason it seems right to think about Judith’s poems here on a borrowed shore. Although not in any obvious way a beach bunny, Judith Beveridge is drawn to the water’s edge; she’s addicted to the coast, to waterscapes more generally, and to the wading birds, in particular, those most elegant fishers, who make their slender livings in the shallows. In all her work, of course, you feel her affection for the world beyond the human, beyond the merely personal, her tenderness for light, her sensitivity to the texture of trees and the gesture of animals, but her affection for nature swells to love around water. Think of “Ganges”, “The River” and “The Lake” in Wolf Notes. It’s hard not to hear the first person within the third in “The Lake”:
She has always loved
the walks here, the egrets stepping from
the lute music of their composure…
But if ever Beveridge’s love of water was a secret, Storm and Honey blows it. Beginning with a disembowelled shark and ending at an aquarium; made of two parts, “Driftgrounds” and “Water Sapphire”; its margins stalked by egrets and herons; its deeps swum by whales and jellyfish and whole lexicons of fish, Storm and Honey is a book of waterborne poetry. It’s a love song for a river, an estuary, and a sea. None of them her own, all of which slip from her nets.
THE POEM AS FICTION
This book began in Judith Beveridge’s last. Wolf Notes (which won the Victorian Premier’s Poetry Prize and the Judith Wright Calanthe Prize) includes, among its beautiful Buddhist peregrinations, its more secular lyric prose poems, the poem “Crew”, a narrative featuring three fishermen who crew a boat that trawls an estuary and inshore coast, Grennan, Davey and the younger man who speaks the poem (and two other fishing poems, “The Fisherman’s Son”, which introduces the young fisherman; and “Sailor”). The first part of Storm and Honey (Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen), thirty of forty-two poems, is a sequence of dramatic monologues, fish tales, spoken by the young nameless fisherman, about this same crew, their works and days, their weather, some of their fellow fishers.
Though there’s nothing like a plot here, there are glimpse memories, moments, voices, relationships and characters. Above all, there’s a place. A river, its mouth, its tributary creeks and tidal mudflats, its caves and promontories, boathouses and lighthouses and shacks, the ocean beaches and the sea. Though the place is not named, it is distinctively somewhere. A world made realer than the real world by Beveridge’s poetics, this coastal landscape resembles—in its scarps, its mangroves and herons and gulls, the pallet it uses to paint dusk, the tonal range of its waters—places, such as Bobbin Head and Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury River, in the sandstone country around Sydney where Judith Beveridge has spent much of her life.
Driftgrounds is hardly Master & Commander—for one thing, it hugs the shore—but you can just about read it as an episodic novel. You might even read each poem in Driftgrounds as a novel in miniature, a plot from which most of the plot has been eroded; a flash memoir: a moment or two, a memory, standing as synecdoche for a whole life or a whole wide social-ecology to which it belongs. Poetry is, by nature, writing from which most of the writing has been taken; but Beveridge knows more about speaking a world in a phrase than most poets going around.
If Driftgrounds were a novel, you’d call it short. And you’d call it lyric. Read as poetry, you might call it narrative. But that would miss most of what it is. Storm and Honey is about fishing in the same way Moby-Dick is about whaling, only more so. The poet is not just telling a string of stories, fishing tales tied together into an asynchronous net. She’s writing what poets always write—lyric engagements with four (or more) worlds at once: intimate interrogations of the lifeworld of one’s self; contemplations of the Self of all creation (the deep consciousness in all things); studies of the nature of the real world beyond the merely human; and rhythmical investigations of the ethics and aesthetics of the everyday human condition. But as another poet might cast herself in the play and proceed in a confessional mode, Judith Beveridge, as has often been her modest way, asks poetry’s musical-philosophical questions through a sustained exercise in empathy.
She erases herself—as a figure, but not, of course, as a poet, not as the unique voice that escapes onto the pages here, real as any character or shard of plot or perfect storm—almost entirely from most of these poems. Instead, she’s invented these characters and made a world for them, and she’s come back from their world with these pieces, all of them amounting to a unique and fragmentary putting of the usual poetic questions: what is real; what lasts; and why should anyone care? Event and character are just the boats that float the poet’s real enterprise here—which is, as ever, making lines and stanzas, choreographing metaphors and imagery, making architecture from sound and sculpture from the rhythm and cadence of voices, and through all these poetic enactments, performing the half-spoken, half-chanted wondering about what is really real that is what poetry is for.
WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
What, beyond the poetics (to which I’ll return), makes Judith Beveridge’s fictive poetry especially remarkable is how little she draws on her lived experience. Write what you know they tell you in fiction writing workshops. Though novelists invent worlds, their fabrications seem most real when the author draws on what she knows and loves. But Judith Beveridge has hardly stepped in a boat; she’s rarely cast a line; she’s never, I think, mended a net. She has not ever disembowelled a shark. You can tell, though, she’s walked rivers and watched shorebirds fish the estuary at dusk; and she has eyed octopus and shark through aquarium glass. But on the whole, and very deliberately, Judith Beveridge has chosen to write in Storm and Honey precisely what she does not know.
Her poetic project here is to throw poems like nets into the unknown. Into the world of what she longs to know. In all but two or three poems in this collection, Beveridge chooses not to wonder about reality by dropping lines deep into her self—the way Montaigne and Augustine do in essay and Plath and the memoirist poets such as Charles Wright and Philip Levine do in poetry, poets whose work Beveridge admires but does not emulate. Instead, she fishes other lives and lines of work and suffering and joy, which she has never lived or even rubbed shoulders with. She wants to leave herself behind to find the world. She wants to ask her version of the poetic questions by sustained acts of imagination. None of this has much to do with the suspense and plot and narrative arc; what Beveridge achieves is not a novelisation of the real world. Her poetry is enacted empathy. She writes the Other; she writes it real.
But the thing is: you’d never know that she never knew. Beveridge makes herself literate, through research as fastidious as her imaginings are generous, in the names of things and the way they go in the worlds she is drawn to write. She learns the verbs and nouns in which other livings are made. She gets the detail so right you know these men, these jellyfish, these microbes exist; nothing real has more vivacity and pulse. Consider, for instance, what you need to know to write of the old fisherman Delancey in his shack, rubbing “away at a spark plug yellow as a dugong’s’ tooth…” or of Grennan and Davey, “flensing” and “flinching” and opening up the shark. Think how at ease you have to get with your subject, his work and his lingo to have the young fisherman say in “The Trawlers”, “Soon I’ll ease down my head, pour/ everything out, pack everything in; feel my dreams churn/ like sea wrack at tide-turn, in the cold cut of the wind.”
It makes me tired just thinking about what Judith Beveridge has had to find out—about fishing tackle and technique, the taxonomies of fish and weather, and the lore of the sea—to write these fishing poems and have us believe them as well as anything we’ve ever believed in our lives.
Judith Beveridge, in her poems, apprentices herself to what she does not know; she teaches us who we are by writing about who she isn’t.
Octavio Paz defined the work of love and poetry as giving a face to the Other—that which—she whom—one loves and is not and can never really know. Judith Beveridge gives a face to her fishermen and the world they inhabit, to the seas they fish and the knots they tie and the weather they live by and the birds they roughly admire. And by means of the care she takes in the library and then in the making and casting of her lines, she lets us see in the face of this Other, our own.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF WHAT YOU LOVE
Water Sapphire, the second part of Storm and Honey, contains a dozen poems that slipped the net of Driftgrounds. A number hold water, but none go fishing. These are personal, confessional lyrics or recollections; they are voiced by the poet, not her fisherman. And they include, notwithstanding what I wrote about the fishing poems, the best poems in a very strong collection: “Herons at Dusk”, “Rain”, “The Mosquito, Riffs and Plaints” and “Appaloosa”.
“Appaloosa”, a poem about horses and longing and what one suspects is Judith Beveridge’s deepest love—the vernacular music of language—stands as a metaphor for her approach to poetry, especially the empathetic narrative poems that characterise this volume. “I have never been bumped in a saddle,” she begins; “and I have never counted the slow four-beat pace/ of distinct, successive hoofbeats”; and “I have never stepped my hands over the flanks/ of a spotted mare, nor ridden a Cleveland Bay/ carriage horse”; nor “made clicking noises/with my tongue during the fifty kilometres/ to town with a baulking gelding and a green/ quartertop buggy.” But everything about the texture and rhythm and insider’s diction and fine detail of the writing tells you she has. And no doubt she hasn’t, but the point is—her point, maybe, but certainly mine—that there is a knowledge you can enter into by casting your imagination out there with love, and by learning the language and letting it play in your mouth and fingers. You can inhabit others’ lives if you can fledge yourself from your self. The poem might almost be read as Beveridge’s poetic credo: write the places and lives where the words that you love—in which you recognise some of who you really are—lead you. Learn the language for what you love; follow the words where they take you. Be there a while. Find yourself there.
GIVING A FACE TO NATURE
Notwithstanding the beauty and verisimilitude her portraits of Delancey, Grennan, Davey, the young fisherman, and Lingo, egrets and herons are the heroes here: “When the herons quietly step they make/ even the stilts’ and avocets’ neat stabs along the sand/ seem like slapstick; they make the routines of all who fish/ along the shore at dusk seem overweighted and vaudevillian./ And look! How they stand—at last—stilled to perfection” (“Herons at Dusk”) Beveridge’s lyric empathy and fastidious mindfulness extend not only to fellow men completely unlike herself, but to the nonhuman citizens of the places she writes; she practises a kind of ecological imagination, which never collapses into anthropomorphism, on turtles and rays, skates and urchins and pipefish, octopus (“whose arms now/ seem to be conducting music to four distinct orchestras”) and shark (“how its eyes keep staring, colder than time”) in the last poem in the book, “The Aquarium”. Even, perhaps especially, to them, the profoundly Other—even to the landscapes the animals, those other nations, walk and fly and swim—Beveridge gives a face.
MENDING YOUR NETS & THE FAITH THAT A FISH MIGHT RISE
If I refer now to a text from the New Testament, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Despite appearances, I’m not taking a religious turn—not a Christian one, anyway. As it happens, Judith Beveridge has a strain of fairly fundamental Christianity running through her life story, but not through her poetry. She’s left behind the narrowness and dogma that attend to much Christian observance; but she’s carried with her into her life and work, the caritas and agape that are the real and only useful teachings of Christianity. She’s found, as some other fine poets have too, richer articulations of the Truth, more suggestive metaphors, more helpful divinities, and more productive practices of mind and heart in the spiritual systems of the East.
I, too, escaped a Christian childhood more or less intact and found my way, in time, to what Aldous Huxley calls “the perennial philosophy”—I found it, as Huxley did, observed more beautifully, subtly, profoundly, sensuously, in art and poetry and liturgies less bounded, perhaps, by the pieties of the Christian tradition I knew as a boy. When, the other month, a Christian missionary asked me in a pub in Newcastle—yes, the Missionary was in the pub—what I believed in, I said “poetry” and “beauty”. (And something else that should stay where I said it.)
Nonetheless, there’s some good writing in the Bible, and one day last year when I was looking for way to organise some ideas about writing for an address to some Christian writers, I turned to my grandfather’s preaching bible, which I keep on my desk, and it fell open at Luke, Chapter 5. It’s the bit where Jesus finds Simon and some other fishermen “washing their nets”, buggered after a day’s fruitless fishing, and he asks them to carry him “a little from land” into Lake Gennesaret so he might do some teaching without getting crushed by a growing throng. When he’s done preaching, he tells Simon and the others “launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” They tell him they’ve fished all night and caught nothing, but they push out and drop their nets anyway, and, lo and behold, “they inclosed a great multitude of fishes and their net brake.”
What I made of that passage when I spoke to the faithful was this: the call to writing may come at any time, and often it will come when you feel worn out from fishing all day for your subject, from working too hard to discover your voice, when most of what you wanted to say seems to have refused your bait or been fished out already; and when you are sitting, empty on the equivalent of the shore mending, distractedly but with skill, the equivalent of your nets. Learning to wait without hope for poetry to come is part of the trick of poetry. The larger part. Another large part is the mending of the nets; learn the craft, master sentences, practise tying them together so they hold when the time comes, so they’re good for catching fish when they rise. Let inspiration catch you in the act, in other words, of the hard and unbeautiful labour (the getting ready and the mending afterwards) that is most of what writing is. Be ready.
Though her fishermen are tough and secular—if capable of such vernacular liturgy as “I like it to bitch-box its hisses, I like the full/ clack and brattle and not just have it chitter/ like a sorry crab”—Judith Beveridge is unlikely to be unaware of the New Testament suggestions of her fishing poems. But that is neither here nor there. My point is that, just as the passage in Luke might be glossed as a parable about the hard work that underpins art and lays a writer open to grace, so the knot-tying and casting and scuttling and gaffing and flensing and trawling and cleaning up after of the fishermen in Beveridge’s poems might be read as metaphors for what it takes to make poetry, and—though she would not say this, I can—to make work now and then as beautiful and apparently effortless as hers. The poet learns by sticking at her poetry, the way the fisher sticks at his fishing; she fails again and fails better; she works at her technique till her technique becomes a practice and her practice becomes an art.
Judith Beveridge at her lines is Grennan at his nets.
So in this volume, even more perhaps than in The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, and Wolf Notes, each poems feels almost perfectly judged; just about the right length (and her lengths vary from two stanzas to five pages); neither too closed nor too open at its end; the line breaks deftly made to hold the poem poised, like the heron, between grace and murder; the poem in nearly every case justifying and transcending the form the poet chooses for it. And the forms are many—longline couplets, quatrains, quintrains, sestets, short- and long-lined tercets, free verse in ragged right and justified columns, the more baroque sound sculptures of “Rain” and “Appaloosa”, each a kind of visual onomatopoeia for its subject—and the variety is satisfying. Beveridge seems the master, the captain one might suggest, of each vessel she chooses for her utterances. But there are no prose poems this time—there were some fine prose poems in Wolf Notes (“The Superintendant of Pastimes”, “Exsanguination” and “Whisky Grass”) and one misses them here. But not too long.
THE SEA OF METAPHOR
The poems in Storm and Honey are a masterclass in metaphor and diction; they are a trove of similes and lapidary verbs (list some) each as fit for its purpose, lithe and sui generis, as the hooks in Grennan’s tackle box (“Hooks”). Important matters of meter and form aside, it is compression and freshness of language (nouns and verbs in particular) and the deft employment of tropes, metaphors, in particular, that make a set of words a poem. Rather than, say, a shopping list or a piece of prose. A poem can tell a story, and Beveridge’s do; it should probably try to mean something rather than nothing; but what makes it a poem is everything it does that it doesn’t have to do merely to mean something and get the story told. With Judith Beveridge—though she makes elegant sense and keeps her narrative arcing meaningfully and suspensefully up—you know without question what you’re reading is a poem.
I’ve talked already about the care Beveridge takes to find and use the diction of her fishermen and their ecologies. But beyond the compelling aptness of her nouns and verbs, Beveridge uses words and phrases that thrill a reader or shudder you because, like the water at dusk or the casuarinas in the early morning on the scarp, they are, in their sound and shape and suggestion, beautiful. Astonishing. Just so. They are something way beyond what they need to be; they do much more than they have to without wasting a breath, without missing or adding a beat. Her phrase-making has a music both wild and necessary. There is no sophistry in her diction, though; Beveridge he doesn’t use language to baffle or dissemble or impress. She uses it the way the sky uses weather; the way fish use water; the heron uses its bill. The kind of vivid grace she achieves doesn’t happen by accident, but it is offered modestly, almost incidentally. As a gift.
Each day we go out among
the slippery stench of weather’s trouble to work
like sea bulls in the rain’s surge and swell. Each day
we follow lightning’s flickering
pulse, the black slough when clouds flume their
tempests. We see squid turn
orange, red, green in a spectrum of unearthly dawns.
—“At 5 am”
There are other poems, in the second part of this collection, that seem to revel in and play with language, its sensuous possibilities—that seem almost to put a case for poetry: “The Mosquito, Riffs and Plaints” is one.
I prefer the cicada’s stroboscopic glitzy aural brandishings
And the bee’s legato burr, even the blowfly’s whirr when heat
keeps the pedal down…
…I prefer the damaged
ringing of my inner ear, and (yes, say it!) everything
turning tintinnabular than to hear this stylus-burdened
insect-pest mimicking a tiny current’s hum and hiss; this
long-nosed diva floating above my breath…
sing into my ear as if it were your mosque, but I’m waiting
for you with my aerosols around the back-end of spring.
I’m waiting, Morse-quito for my had to slap a message
Back—just once, loudly—and quick as your electric dialect.
—“The Mosquito, Riffs and Plaints”
“Rain” is the second. Listen to the punning and aural aerobatics there; see the imagery, sacred and profane. “Rain” has the same kind of fun with a much more sympathetic subject:
The cascading rain outrunning its own skeins in the lilting
Dark. The loquacious rain, glissading across
The drip-garrulous leaves. Tipsy
Rain, puddling, wetting its own socks.
So you see what I mean about metaphors. Those passages contain only slightly more than the average concentration of simile (and other metaphors) you’ll find in the rest of the poems in the book. The final poem, “The Harbour”, is almost an essay in simile, and a tribute not just to Robert Gray’s poem “Late Ferry”, but to Gray’s particular gift and affection for the device. Beveridge shares Gray’s gift for simile; she attends, one feels, to this aspect of the practice of poetry with both joy and discipline.
Here are a few more of the metaphors that festoon this book:
The trawlers are slanting, moving across thick dossiers
of water, the wind dictating, urgent, demanding
a copybook hand.
(And notice that wonderful line and stanza break.)
Just then the rain ticks on the wheelhouse roof
as though Kalahari tribesmen had gathered…
slips down the sky like a forkful
of buttered sea-worms.
—“At 5 am”
A thunderhead like an enormous decaying molar,
lightning shooting as quickly
as cracked pain…
Dusk is spreading across the sky like a peach preserve.
With every lurch of our boat I stagger, trying
to wear this gale like a fisherman’s
Near the pier another heron is holding its bill over the reeds
as purposeful as a seiner with a marlinspike, before it
jabs then returns to its wire-drawn stance, as if all it must
achieve now is to lift and pull itself into the distance
like sail twine.
—“Herons at Dusk”
This collection of poems, this episodic lyric novel, is not so much six months (or more) in a leaky boat, then; it’s an odyssey over a sea—several seas—of metaphor. And the similes are a departure for Beveridge; they mark a turning in Beveridge’s work—not a turning from the world as it is but to the “web of language”, to use Grave’s phrase—its power to animate, almost re-enchant, creation—to re-enchant us, anyway. Storm and Honey goes close to putting a case for the power of poetry to regenerate the imperfect world—to transfigure it for us, in our alienation, so that it feels like us who’ve been saved. Wolf Notes, on the whole, was a book of clear-eyed, ascetic witness. Of the way things are, in themselves; a journal of the dreamlife of the world. Storm and Honey, for all its dignity and grace, is a mardi gras by comparison. It is of the body, where Wolf Notes was of the mind. The language, which was ethereal in Wolf Notes, is a riot here, as sumptuous and animate as any storm, as rank as a corpse, as baroque as a sunset, as wanton as honey.
Robert Gray likes to say that every poem is about the same thing: it’s about the making of itself. It’s about poetry. The phrase, the thought, the dream, the recollection, the epigram, the mood, the image are simply where the poem begins, and where the poet begins the poem; but once it starts, the poem becomes, mostly, an attempt not to unmake itself as it makes itself up. You’re trying to bring something into being; and what that is, you discover as you write. The triumph of a poem, if it triumphs, is that it seems given, not made; that it seems so real you can’t imagine a time when it didn’t exist; that it holds onto its mystery’s as well as any of us, if more resonantly. The successful poem doesn’t seem to force itself on the form the poet chooses for it, or upon any of us who might read it. It’s an offering. The best poem just is. Like a stretch of coast. Until global warming sets in, anyway. And then it will be something, and somewhere, else.
Judith Beveridge’s poems are nets, but if they capture all manner of men and women and dreams and other animals in all manner of obscene and ecstatic and prayerful gestures, they let every one of them go. What one is left with is not the catch, but the net.
These are not poems about fish, or fishers, or even nets; they are poems about poetry. What they mean is what they are: structures that shape silence into prayer. They enact what poetry is good for: making emptiness out of shrillness, stillness out of crowdedness—they let the world be more like what it is, by attending to it, and letting it slip. This is the poetry of non-attachment.
Each poem here is a net—a beautiful, irregular, broken and mended form, made mostly of what it isn’t—and with these nets, Beveridge catches the world as it is when no one’s looking; she lets it become real a second time, by letting it be in her prosody a while; and then she lets it go. Itself again, entirely.
Judith Beveridge’s poetry is catch-and-release fishing. Beveridge is as deft a fisher as Davey or Grennan, Delancey or the boy, as elegant and fastidious and as sure of her aim as any heron at dusk; she keeps her eyes and mouth open, like—but again unlike—the shark of her closing poem, through time; but not a thing she touches dies under her hand. Not an animal—egret, child, appaloosa, bream, cockatoo, or mudcrab—was harmed in the making of these poems. The only thing Judith Beveridge catches that stays caught is poetry, itself—language “stilled to perfection”. Language like this:
I see them in the water-drunken waves…
Sails, torn feathers, under the pauper
witness of the sky. Though sometimes
one will appear, a lamplight out
of the gust, calmly listing her way across
the weather like a middle-aged bride.
—“Boats in Distress”
IF BEAUTY IS TRUTH, UGLINESS IS HALF OF IT
Storm and Honey, the blurb warns, “opens with the discovery of a child’s corpse inside the belly of a shark”. The blurb writer seems at pains to position this as different work—more “visceral” than we’re used to from Beveridge. When Judith sent me the manuscript, she warned me, too, that some of the poems were fairly brutal. Sure, the contents of a shark’s belly, in particular “what was left of the child” makes an arresting start; sure, there’s vomiting and the murder of a cockatoo, the burning of Delancey’s shack, the sea burial of a foetid whale carcass, maggots, cruelty to dogs: it’s a fairly rugged day out and about with the lyre. But beauty is what you’re left with at the end of it, and calm—the payload of the grace and honesty with which Judith Beveridge deals with everything from guts to glory. (Beveridge takes her book’s title “storm and honey” from Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Captain Dobbin”, and she uses it to point up the sublime paradox of nature and so much of life: what is unwise is often also glorious; what is dangerous is also beautiful; what is treacherous may also save your life; death is only another kind of beginning.)
Perhaps Beveridge wanted a less beautiful and gentle book of poems after the meditative Wolf Notes. And certainly this book is different in its language and its subjects—tougher, wilder. It’s good to see her try her gift on some stench and squalor and violence; if beauty is truth, ugliness is part of it.
I’m not sure what Beveridge was wanting from this new material, or what she thought she’d make of it, or of her poetry, by wrestling with it; I’m not sure she felt she made, or had, a choice. This was probably just the stuff that asked her to write it. But Beveridge is still nobody’s idea of Ernest Hemingway or Edgar Allen Poe, or Philip Marlowe. The rude and violent are the dark continent for her; they are the farthest reach, the deepest deep, of the Other. She’s not at home there, but she goes there and stands and returns, with loving kindness and equanimity.
You might also read this new dark material as a set of metaphors for regions and moments every soul knows—the places where each of us, Judith Beveridge in her own way, is acquainted with the night; and in this sense, at least, the gruesome isn’t far from home for her, or any of us, at all. As metaphors for the dark and fearful places Gerard Manly Hopkins calls the “cliffs of fall”, and as plunges into places, such as the stomach of a shark, the poet has never been and is never likely to go, one could see the content of these new poems, as the very epitome of the empathy of which the whole book is a practice.
I don’t think I’d say that because of some harsh new material and her full-bodied embrace of the two-faced and unreliable, astonishing world, Storm and Honey represents a deepening of what was already a deep and subtle art. But I would say that her gift is up to the challenge she set herself here. I would say that her poems give a face even to the rudeness and savagery of the Other, which is the world beyond one’s self (and way below the surface of one’s everyday self), and that the face is beautiful and as familiar as one’s own.
None of us really knows what we’re writing here, Martin Harrison said to me the other night; it will only be later that the pattern of meaning becomes clear in our work—and probably to someone else. We write way out ahead of ourselves, it’s true, following where language seems to want to lead us; we sit in poetry’s boat and go. But I suppose we’re witnesses, Martin went on. The poet bears witness to what escapes most everyone else most of the time—even, if Martin is right, the poet herself. And certainly Judith Beveridge is one of this moment’s great witnesses. What she witnesses is what is real behind the mask of what we mistake for the real world. It’s an odd kind of witness, too, when you think of it: performed in simile, indirectly, upon aspects of the truth she has rarely, in reality, experienced. The truth of her writing lies not in what it shows, however, but in how—in the shapely and utter integrity of her articulations.
If, like the rest of us, Judith Beveridge doesn’t really know what she’s writing, then I shouldn’t presume to say. But I can say this: what she does know is how to write and how to make us feel, by the care she takes over the writing (which is nine parts listening), that the real world is our home after all, that we’ve just found the key to its front door, and that we might just about get it open, before time’s up.