Judith Beveridge, Wolf Notes (Giramondo 2007, 2010)
On a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel some years ago Inga Clendinnen indulged in a flight of metaphor, saying that the writer of a personal essay takes the reader by the hand and says, ‘Come walk with me,’ while a novelist invites a reader to play Catch-me-if-you-can. The novelist who chaired the panel commented afterwards that though he adores Inga (as who doesn’t?), he was a little offended. At the risk of offending poets everywhere then, I’d like to suggest that the author of a book of poems is saying, ‘Come in, make yourself at home, stay a while.’
That is to say, I have to live with a book of poetry for a while before I feel that I’ve actually read it. At this stage of my relationship with Wolf Notes, I can say confidently that there’s lots of good stuff in it, but I’d have read it again, dip into it, and do some digging before I could say anything useful about it. (I’ve just read Martin Duwell’s latest entry on his Australian Poetry Review site, and I tell you I’m in awe.)
For an example of why I’m not competent to say much about this book, I have no idea why the first of its three parts is called ‘Peregrine’: it begins with character sketches of people you might see in an Asian city or countryside – a saffron picker, a pedlar, a bone artisan –, and goes on to a miscellany of other subjects – a contemplative walk beside a lake, a suicide, a boy killed by leeches, a mother wrestling with inexplicable sadness, a crew of three on a fishing boat, and so on. Does the title suggest that the poet is a pilgrim? A falcon? I draw a blank.
In a different way, it seems that to appreciate the middle section, ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, described in an introductory note as ‘an imaginative depiction of the time Siddhattha spent wandering in the forests and towns before achieving enlightenment’, I would have to learn something about Buddhism and the story of the Buddha. I found many of these poems beautiful, especially the ones filled with observations of the natural world, but I have very little clue where they stand in relation to Buddhism: are they devout meditations or relatively unengaged textual games? I think the former, but don’t know enough to be sure. (The third section, ‘Signatures’, presents no general problem – it’s a number of monologues, easily understood to be their speakers’ signatures.)
So far I’m just a visitor to this book, then, but it offers enough observation, drama, wit and seriousness to make me want to spend more time here. One pleasurable thing is the way the moon appears again and again, especially in the middle section. If I quote a number of its appearances, you’ll get some idea of Judith Beveridge’s voice, at least when she’s channelling Siddhattha:
From ‘The Rains’:
————— I look at the moon
primed and narrow as the sting
of a scorpion’s tail.
I watched the moon gather shine
like limestone in a mason’s hands.
From ‘Circles’, after describing vultures in picking at a dead ox:
I saw the moon, a desecrated bone
upon which those birds
might drip some blood.
From ‘New Season’:
——————————— the sky’s
depth, where the moon pares itself down
into the smile of an obedient wife
From ‘The Krait’:
I was scared. I didn’t notice the moon,
a fang poised above my slightest act.
Today I hear only wind smuggled in.
The moon bears down with its gift-less smile.
From ‘Death‘ (possibly the most immediately accessible poem in the book, it’s the fourth or fifth one down at that link):
Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.
From ‘Ficus Religiosa’:
I vow with all beings
to sit until the moon, a bowl,
is almed only by the Good.
Same moon, same poet, different poems, different feel. I won’t be shaking this book’s dust from the soles of my sandals for a while yet.