Lisa Gorton, Empirical (Giramondo 2019)
This is a book in two sections. The first, shorter section. ‘Empirical’, consists of eight poems related to Melbourne’s Royal Park. The second, ‘Crystal Palace’, deals with works of art – the Aphrodite of Melos/Venus de Milo, poems by Rimbaud and Coleridge.
A disclaimer: I’m not a critic. If you want to read a discussion of this book by someone who understands contemporary poetics, I recommend Michael Farrell’s flashily academic review in the Sydney Review of Books (link here) or David McCooey’s in ABR (link here), which is accessible in full only to subscribers.
The first seven poems, ‘Empirical’ I to VII, are deeply rooted in a particular place. The first poem (which you can read here) begins with a description:
A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway – between them this falling away of ground – two or three acres where for years the council trucks brought building rubble – mounds of shattered concrete, brick shards, piping, steel mesh heaped here where grass succeeds itself and flowering weeds
The poem’s speaker walks into ‘the wreckage’, and the reader, this one at least, is right there with her. Then the perspective shifts, as I read it, to the speaker’s subjectivity: she is transported to a place from her early life, perhaps a kind of template of place:
and it is the first place, place itself grown inward to my sight, along the side of the house, in the playground where dry ground slants to the fence
And now I start to have trouble following. The weeds ‘have made for me a heraldry of my forgetting’, perhaps like the smell of the madeleine dipped in tilleul for Proust,
__________________________ and set me here in its abyss giving the bright scenes place – which is to say I have not seen it yet
This isn’t difficulty for its own sake, but a struggle to articulate what is happening for the speaker: the first thirteen lines have established the physical reality of the place, but all she can actually see is what she brings to it, so it becomes impossible to see in its own right. That’s a familiar line of reasoning among philosophers of epistemology, but here it’s not so much a line of reasoning as a description, even an enactment, of a mental process. Then the speaker takes a leap to imagine what it is that she cannot see. The place, the poem ends, is
__________________________ to itself a storm perpetually in the front of light –
I can’t paraphrase that, and I don’t think I’m meant to. It’s reaching for something that can’t quite be said. The dash at the end suggests to me that the poem hasn’t so much finished as gone as far as it can go and then stopped.
Each of the seven ‘Empirical’ poems begins similarly with physical description, and ends similarly with a non-conclusive dash, with a similar play between what the place is in and of itself on the one hand, and what the observer/poet/artist can make of it on the other.
The eighth poem, ‘Royal Park’, begins with an echo of the start of the first poem:
A factory, the train line curving off to cross the motorway –
The reader realises, if she, or he, hasn’t already read the cover blurb, that the ‘two or three acres’ of the first seven poems is Melbourne’s Royal Park, or at least part of it.
This is a longer poem, which I found completely engrossing. It tells the history of that piece of ground, beginning with Batman and ‘what he called his treaty’. It consists mainly of a kind of collage of quotes – what the academics ‘bricolage’. A list of sources in a note up the back takes four pages: archival documents, paintings, maps, newspaper stories, learned articles. The park has been the site of a zoo, an orphanage and truant school combined, a quarantine station, a digging ground for beginners in geology, an exhibition ground for the ‘Centennial Exhibition’, a military camp, a rifle range, a Military Mental Hospital, a public recreation area. And for each of these incarnations there’s colour and movement.
In an author’s note that the publisher enclosed with my review copy, Lisa Gorton writes:
I was provoked by a statement in a heritage assessment of Royal Park that Andrew Long and Associates carried out for the government, in preparation for the East-West Link: ‘This location would not appear to have been of great likely attraction to Aboriginal past populations given its distance to local watercourses.’ This claim seemed to me to epitomise how a manufactured landscape can conceal the history of country. The ground now named Royal Park opened out alongside the Moonee Moonee chain of ponds … The dark and remarkable history of this patch of ground set up a drama of surface and depth, remembering and forgetting.’
The poem doesn’t presume to speak of or for the Aboriginal people whose country this is. It’s a colonial history of that patch of ground. It’s a mighty act of reclaiming collective memory.
In the second part of the book, the longest poem ‘Life Writing’, subtitled ‘Of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan‘, does bricolage on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his poem ‘Kubla Khan’, the historical Kublai Khan, and a constellation of related subjects. It’s likewise full of bright colour and engaging movement, though possibly because it doesn’t have the chronological through-line of ‘Royal Park’, I fond I got lost a number of times.
I am in awe of Lisa Gorton’s erudition and her ability to put words together. I’m grateful for the moments of deep pleasure I’ve found in this book.
Empirical is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing, for which I am grateful.