Summer reads 6: Jane Gibian’s Beneath the Tree Line

Jane Gibian, Beneath the Tree Line: New Poems (Giramondo 2021)

When Jane Gibian read her poem ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event in 2017, she told us that it was made up of subject lines from freecycle emails. I was a frequent freecycler at the time and was delighted that she had found poetry there – the title of the poem being just one of the poem’s evocative lines.

‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ turns up in this book without a note on its sources, and it still works, evoking a wonderful variety of life, and detritus. You can read a version with some extraneous scanner-generated characters at this link. It’s in a section of the book devoted mainly to similar found poems – including ‘Seventeen titles on the New Books shelf: June–July 2019’ whose title a) tells the reader what to expect and b) reminds us that Jane Gibian works as a librarian. At first glance you’d think this playful section, mucking around with lists of found language, was in a different world from the rest of the book, which, as an Author’s Note (online at the Giramondo website, here) puts it elegantly, is ‘preoccupied with the natural world and our place in its increasingly precarious situation’. The note continues:

My thoughts and writing practice seem to be most active in places of wildness, preferably wilderness. Many of these poems engage directly with the natural environment through a range of approaches: human engagement – both fascination and despair – and the natural world itself, disinterested and unforgiving of us, one animal in a complex living web.

That’s far cry from, say, this from ‘Leftovers’:

RE-OFFER: Disposable diapers
for small cat/dog

Yet among the many things I love and respond to in this collection, there are a lot of lists: from signs of the changing seasons in ‘Each turn’, to observations while travelling and learning the language in Vietnam, to vestigial organs in the human body in ‘Vestigial’. One of the most powerful poems in the book, ‘Waiting’ (which you can read on the Cordite Poetry Review website), does the crucial work of helping the reader grasp the reality of the climate emergency largely by means of a list: parked cars, ‘a mizzle of rain’, newscasts, coral, a factoid about Mars, St Andrew’s Cross spiders, an approaching train. Of course, it’s much more than that, and when I came to the final lines (if that’s the right word for a prose poem) I had to go for a little walk:

in the five previous known extinctions of all life / coral was the first to die / your eyes meet again in the rear-vision mirror

The US poet William Carlos Williams had a famous slogan summarising the principles underlying Imagism: ‘No ideas but in things.’ Jane Gibian isn’t an imagist, and her poetry doesn’t avoid explicit statement of ideas. Maybe it’s more like: sometimes (often?), rather than spelling out your ideas you can give readers an image and let them have their own ideas.

‘Arid zone’ on page 74–75 is a terrific example of this kind of thing:

This isn’t a poem that demands close reading to be appreciated, but it’s worth pausing over.

It’s as much a list as ‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’ – leftovers from a sustained drought, maybe.

My Latin teacher in secondary school might have called it a congeries, a heaping up, of sights seen from a car travelling across drought-stricken country. Strictly speaking, they’re not haiku or senryu, but they owe a lot to those forms (which are similar in number of syllables etc, but the senryu is more likely to include something about human foibles). The words in capitals at the start of each group of lines look as if they are subtitles, but they’re not. They are road signs, seen from the car just as the other images are, and listed with them more or less arbitrarily.

It’s worth noticing the way the poem sits on the page. The plentiful white space reinforces the sense that the poet is covering great distances, most of it in silence.

arid zone


CREST
desiccated leather sacks 
punctuating the desert highway 
once were cattle, 
whitened bones worn through 
the taut hides

Not just one corpse, and not the corpses of natural desert dwellers. This is country that usually sustains grazing cattle. We are witnessing the aridity of drought.

Notice how the line breaks work: twice in these five lines, you think you’ve come to end of a sentence, but it continues over the line – the leather sacks … once were cattle, and the bones have worn through … the taut hides. This slight syntactical ambiguity slows you down, as if your gaze has to linger on the passing sight a moment longer.

DIP
Careful Driving Techniques Are Advisable 
informs a buckled sign 
on the unsealed road;
we skipped the National Road Transport
Hall of Fame

This is the senryu-ish section. That is, it deals with human foibles rather than, like the haiku, with observations of nature and the seasons. Officialdom is helpless to deal with this natural disaster: it offers inane advice, allows signs and roads to deteriorate, and promotes a self-congratulatory view of the past.

FLOODWAY
whistling kites float above us 
and beside 130 km/hour traffic, 
a motionless eagle stands stern-eyed 
with a roadkill meal

This is the only road sign that relates to what follows it – and it does it with extreme irony.

You notice the counterpoints in these lines: movement in the first two lines vs motionlessness in the next two; floating kites vs speeding traffic; the whistling of the kites vs the implied roar of the traffic; our implied eyes seeing the kites vs the stern eyes of the eagle (watching us?); the traffic vs the roadkill; the eagle vs the unknown species of roadkill. I love the finality of the word ‘meal’. I’d be astonished if Jane Gibian had George Herbert in mind when she wrote this, but to my ear it has the same satisfying note of completion as the last line of his marvellous poem Love (III): ‘So I did sit and eat.’

GRID
an incongruous cow
lolls hotly in the scarce shade 
of a spindly leaved shrub

Why ‘incongruous’? It stands out as the only adjective in the poem that implies a judgement. It certainly slows the reader down because its meaning isn’t clear. I suppose a cow lolling in the shade of a tree is a normal sight in a green pasture, and even more normal if it’s part of a herd. A solitary cow in country that is scattered with corpses of cattle is incongruous because alive even more than because it’s alone.

The adjectives and adverbs – ‘incongruous’, ‘hotly’, ‘scarce’, ‘spindly leaved’ – are doing a lot of work in these three lines. Remove any one of them and the image changes substantially. That is also so if the shrub is ‘spindly’ rather than ‘spindly leaved’.

ROAD NARROWS
butterfly wing-dust
stuck to the windscreen

We’ve arrived, with the familiar image of a dirty windscreen after a long road trip. After all the looking (and in the case of the museum, not-looking) of the previous sections, our attention is drawn much closer to home. The car travellers aren’t uninvolved observers: we have been doing our share of damage, and our vision is partly obscured by the damage we’ve done. It’s not flies or beetles or cabbage moths (of which we saw a lot on our recent road trip), but butterflies. It would be pushing things to see butterflies here in their mediaeval status as symbols of the soul – it’s not that kind of poem. But butterflies are beautiful, fragile creatures, reduced to wing-dust that we must look through to see in front of us. At least, that’s where my mind goes: an idea that – for me – is in these things, is that there’s no such thing as an innocent observer.

I need to say that I’ve barely touched on one aspect of this book. You can see Jane Gibian’s poems on line at PoemHunter, Jacket2 and Cordite Poetry Review, among other places.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Beneath the Tree Line.

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