Judith Beveridge, Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018)
tl;dr: I love this book. Judith Beveridge writes a great self-introduction, and she is the queen of similes.
The six-page Author’s Note at the start of Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music is a class act. She begins by talking about her ‘pathological shyness’ as a child, adolescent and adult, seeing in it a partial explanation for why nature features ‘as an abiding source of connection’ in her poems, and for her turning to literature and the written word as a source of intense pleasure and a means of communication.
She goes on to describe the kind of poet she is – mainly lyrical, she says, rather than having ‘an over-heated experimental or exploratory approach’, deriving ‘idiosyncrasies of rhythm, music, voice, sensual knowledge, syntactical deportment, emotion and ideas’ from the body. She also acknowledges that she is a dramatic poet, particularly in two long sequences centred on the life of Siddhatta Gotama the Buddha (not included in this selection but promised as two thirds of a future book), and ‘Driftground’, about a group of fishermen, which account for 27 marvellous pages here.
She discusses influences and aspirations, and generally provides an excellent orientation to the 103 poems that follow. One sentence stood out for me:
It’s the challenge of trying to write a good poem rather than feeling that I have something unique to say that motivates me.
That sentence prepares one for the way her poetry is marvellously open to its subjects. She never comes wielding an agenda, but pays attention with tremendous humility, often to breathtaking effect.
I loved reading Sun Music, and came away resolved to keep my eyes and ears more open to the world, especially but not only to the birds and animals in my life.
When I wrote a blog post about Beveridge’s book Wolf Notes seven years ago I quoted lines about the moon from a number of poems. Looking back, I realise I was trying to communicate my awe at her use of similes. That awe deepened as I read this volume. Some random examples: ‘an egret posed like a too-slim / model in the glossy light’ (‘Sun Music’), or ‘On the headland motels light up / like bright perfume bottles’ (‘Resort Town’), or ‘bluebottles are cast up in clusters / of varicose knots’ (‘Spittle Beach’), or (from ‘Lighthouse Beach’):
stands still as an altarpiece, then for a moment,
sea-misted, it looks like a whale's spout
about to give way to wind and waves.
Occasionally there’s some showing off – as in ‘The Harbour’, where everything in the poem is seen as something to do with food or its preparation or consumption (the Opera House like an ‘arrangement of prim serviettes’). But it almost always feels as if Beveridge’s similes arise from the quality of attention she has paid to the thing she sees (or hears) – as if it gives her words to describe it, words that she then passes on to us.
I generally try to single out just one poem I connect with when I blog about a book of poetry. There are so many to choose from here, but I’ve settled on ‘Panegyric for Toads’, one of the thirty-three new poems on the final section – because I’ve been thinking about my North Queensland childhood recently, and this poem restored memory of the ubiquitous cane toads, and captures something of the secret affection I had for them as a child. Here’s the poem (click to enlarge):
The beginning – ‘These slumlords of burrows and tree-hollows / are on the move’ – evokes an image of toads – squat and repugnant as cartoon slum landlords, then after the line break they are ‘on the move’. This is not a panegyric to a single toad, and not to toads in general, but to a particular set of toads, dozens of them, part of the pestilential spread of their species across vast tracts of Australia. The general point isn’t laboured, it may not even be intended, but it’s strongly there, and the poem goes back to beautifully concise description of their appearance and sound.
The rest of the poem moves back and forth between general cultural and scientific knowledge about toads and precise, felt observation. There’s the folklore, the glaze of poison (we had a dog that tried to eat a toad and got very sick), the mating . All pretty yuck, really. But
__________look at those copper-red eyes leasing
fire to the damp core of evening; listen to their calls
in the reeds like the low-plucked strings of ouds;
and how, sometimes, as if led by an unseen conductor,
sensing peril, their singing instantaneously stops.
Well, yes, one has to concede, there is that. But then she goes for the most grotesque aspect of these creatures, their mating (here’s a link to a video in case you need to refresh your memory). There’s a marvellous reversal of the expected order here: there is description of the grotesquerie, the female
with a group of males, an iron-lock embrace
they won't break for days, risk drowning for sex.
But that comes after the process has been described as ‘like a congregational / laying on of hands’, whose purpose is to heal their warts. And it comes after the poem’s genuinely shocking moment:
Some say toads are always belching, breaking
wind, eating each other's shed skin. I'd happily
kiss a toad on her sullen, troglodyte mouth
It’s hard to know what to make of that, apart from to be revolted. The fairytale reference suggests that some transformation might result: it could be that the poet would happily kiss the toad to spare her from the ordeal of the mating scrum, but I don’t think that’s it. Maybe there is a transformation here, though: the poet has seen past the belching, farting, dead-skin eating, sullen wartiness to what is wonderful about these creatures and her response to them has been transformed into something like love. Certainly, coming where they do in the poem, the lines about indissoluble scrumming and risking drowning for sex are celebratory more than anything.
The last three lines, after evoking the beauty of frogs, end with an assertion of fellow-feeling. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as agile, smooth-skinned frogs, but really, warts and all, we’re like toads.
The poem was included in Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016 edited by Sarah Holland-Batt. A reviewer in in The Australian (link here, not behind pay wall) wrote:
Judith Beveridge’s ‘A Panegyric for Toads‘ is a breathtaking piece that conflates the behaviour of toads with our reckless treatment of the environment.
I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I just don’t see it. I don’t think the toads here represent anything. Sometimes a toad is just a toad.
Sun Music is the seventeenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.